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The Illusion of 'Following the Science' in the War Over Trigger Warnings

In the ever-evolving landscape of the culture war, few topics have garnered as much attention as trigger warnings. At their core, trigger warnings are a relatively straightforward psychological intervention aimed at providing some sort of benefit by alerting a person to content that may “trigger” upsetting memories or emotions from their past.

However, amidst the fervor of this discourse, the most crucial question has been consistently overlooked by proponents of trigger warnings: What does the evidence actually say about trigger warnings and their effectiveness?

A new paper just released in Clinical Psychological Science, “A Meta-Analysis of the Efficacy of Trigger Warnings, Content Warnings, and Content Notes”, provides a first look at the empirical consensus after years of experimentation.

The Evidence on Trigger Warnings

Trigger warnings – sometimes called content warnings, content notes, among other names – are advisories designed to prepare individuals for potentially distressing content based on their past negative experiences. Advocates contend that these warnings aid emotional preparation or avoidance of upsetting material, while critics argue that they perpetuate a culture of avoidance and fear.

We conducted a comprehensive meta-analysis of all available empirical studies on trigger warnings' effects, focusing on their impact on emotional responses, avoidance behavior, anticipatory anxiety, and educational outcomes. The meta-analysis included a total of 12 individual studies from researchers in the US, UK, Australia, and New Zealand and over 7,000 participants. Importantly, 142 of the 144 effect sizes we meta-analyzed (98.6%) included trauma survivors in their sample (some of them exclusively).

The collective findings were clear: trigger warnings had no significant impact on affective responses to distressing material or educational outcomes. Intriguingly, while warnings seemed to increase anticipatory anxiety, they did not lead to a higher level of avoidance of the warned content. In some cases, individuals may be more drawn to engage with material labeled as potentially distressing.

Overall, trigger warnings do not work in the way that advocates assumed. While their intent to help the vulnerable may be noble, in practice, they do not seem like a helpful path forward.

"The collective findings were clear: trigger warnings had no significant impact on affective responses to distressing material or educational outcomes."

Why Don’t Trigger Warnings Work?

The current literature can’t answer exactly why trigger warnings don’t work. But wordsmithing warnings probably won’t help - existing studies have tested a large variety of different types of warnings, and found little variance across different versions. And improving warnings’ match to content or to individuals’ trauma probably won’t help either - similar results were found for matched and unmatched content, vague warnings and specific warnings.

One potential reason why they don’t seem to help is that while warnings provide information, individuals might not know how to use this information to manage their emotional reactions. This idea is supported by one study which asked participants to simply report what came to mind when they saw trigger warnings related to their most distressing experience. The large majority of participants did not report any adaptive coping strategies coming to mind.

“Forget about emotional preparedness!” you might be tempted to say – ”trigger warnings are about helping trauma survivors completely avoid triggers!” First, you should be aware that most trauma therapists would cringe at this idea. Avoidance of trauma triggers worsens PTSD, and PTSD treatment encourages patients to boldly confront their triggers in a wide variety of situations.

Regardless, as evidenced by the meta-analysis, trigger warnings don’t seem to “help” with avoidance. One potential reason why is that humans seem not to be great at looking away from emotionally poignant material – including people with mental health problems that may be particularly susceptible to the negative effects of such content. Some of the possible explanations include biases toward negative material, attempts to make meaning, or just plain old morbid curiosity.

"The absence of rigorous studies on trigger warnings until recently illustrates our penchant for prioritizing ideological victories over empirical investigation."

Following the Culture War and Ignoring the Science

If you never liked trigger warnings, you may be poised and ready to declare victory for your ideological preferences. Stop! Trigger warnings’ ineffectiveness does not mean you’re right about anything else in particular.

If you favor trigger warnings, you might be tempted to search out every possible hole in every study, accuse the authors of ideological bias, or otherwise protect your prior belief. Stop! Trigger warnings’ ineffectiveness probably doesn’t threaten your actual worldview in any important way.

The science of trigger warnings has been remarkably simple, and the empirical consensus high. Yet the ideological battle has been complex and heated. This odd pattern of discourse surrounding a controversial area of study is not an isolated incident.

The pattern goes something like this:

  • A specific policy or intervention exists.
  • The context of the policy or its proposal comes with significant baggage: assumptions about how the world works, who deserves shared resources, who is the victim and who is the perpetrator, etc.
  • The debate over the policy gradually moves to ignore the policy completely! Instead, the debate becomes a debate solely over baggage.

Such is the case with trigger warnings. The policy itself — and its effects — are simple. The surrounding cultural context, however, is complex. Venture online, and you’ll find that disagreements about trigger warnings are very rarely disagreements about anything remotely empirical. Instead, they are disagreements about baggage. You might hear accusations and condemnations like:

“You don’t care about trauma survivors”

“You’re trying to live in La-la Land – the real world won’t coddle you”

“Just because you don’t need accommodations doesn’t mean that others are as privileged as you”

“You’re only concerned with signaling your own virtue”

It can take some significant effort to emotionally detach and realize that these arguments have exactly nothing to do with trigger warnings at all.

In the culture war, this pattern replicates itself over and over.

  • Police body cameras have been found time and time again to be ineffective, but the nuances of policy implementation are lost in fiery debates about general police violence.
  • There is scarce evidence that cloth and surgical masks provide meaningful protection against SARS-CoV-2; in contrast, N-95 masks worn properly work quite well. However, arguments about masks rarely even mention mask types. They are much more likely to focus on “how little you seem to care about protecting the immunocompromised”, or “how sheepishly you’re complying to unprecedented government overreach.”

Science tends to provide very specific answers to very specific questions, and it tends to do so with little regard to our grand political preconceptions. Ironically, the rallying cry of "Follow the Science" has been primarily used to casually bludgeon broad and complex arguments; science rarely offers neat, polarized answers to such dilemmas.

This tendency to prioritize winning cultural battles over evidence-based understanding of nuance hampers the pursuit of objective knowledge. When debates become dominated by a desire for victory, the truth can be obscured by emotional rhetoric.

"The science of trigger warnings has been remarkably simple, and the empirical consensus high. Yet the ideological battle has been complex and heated."

Conclusion

In the quest to triumph in the culture war, the quest for truth about trigger warnings was marginalized. Slate magazine declared 2013 the “year of the trigger warning” — yet the very first empirical study on trigger warnings emerged a whole 5 years later, in 2018.

The absence of rigorous studies on trigger warnings until recently illustrates our penchant for prioritizing ideological victories over empirical investigation. While the studies did finally emerge – and with surprising clarity and consistency – our prediction is that they will continue to be largely ignored in campus practice and a milieu of debates over accompanying assumptions and worldviews.

Trigger warnings are merely one small feature in the complex landscape of culture and society. Navigating these complexities necessitates disinterested scientific attention, an approach that has been stifled by warring coalitions with little regard for unbiased truth-seeking. As we move forward, it is imperative to prioritize nuanced research over ideological division, fostering an environment where scientific truths can emerge unencumbered by the constraints of a polarized society.

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