Trigger Warning: This Won’t Be Helpful

As they write next semester’s syllabus, some professors will make a cynical calculation: It’s better to risk regression while seeming compassionate than to support recovery and endure complaints.

No matter the course material — history, political science, biology, law — they’ll lard up the lesson plans with trigger warnings to appease squeaky wheels, curry favor with the dean and ward off campus controversies. But if they’ve done their homework, they’ll know full well that they’re wrong.

In a New Yorker column published Sept. 28, Harvard Law School professor Jeannie Suk Gersen recaps the relevant literature. Peer-reviewed psychological studies from 2018 to 2021 show no indications that trigger warnings help students cope with trauma, and some suggest a negative effect on mental health.

Gersen cited a June 2020 article in the Clinical Psychological Science journal concluding trigger warnings reinforce survivors’ belief that trauma is central to their identity. That belief is closely linked with the most severe cases of post-traumatic stress disorder.

“The perverse consequence of trigger warnings, then, may be to harm the people they are intended to protect,” Gersen wrote.

Carleton College professors Amna Khalid and Jeffrey Aaron Snyder are even more emphatic in a Sept. 15 review for the Chronicle of Higher Education headlined, “The Data Is In — Trigger Warnings Don’t Work.” They cite 17 studies and reach the same inevitable conclusion.

“We are not aware of a single experimental study that has found significant benefits of using trigger warnings,” Khalid and Snyder wrote.

That may be news to the general public and the educational establishment, but it’s long been painfully obvious to psychology practitioners. Not only is it uncontroversial that exposure tends to mitigate PTSD and phobias while avoidance tends to aggravate them, it’s the foundation on which therapy is built. Graduated exposure to a fear or trauma trigger is often just what the doctor ordered.

Psychologist, professor and author Jonathan Haidt eviscerated trigger warnings in a 2015 essay for The Atlantic with co-author Greg Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. The piece proved so popular that Haidt and Lukianoff expanded it into a bestselling book, “The Coddling of the American Mind,” released in 2018.

In an Intelligence Squared debate filmed the same year, Haidt seemed exasperated at times while trigger warning proponents clung to conjecture when confronted with bare facts.

“It’s an empirical question whether they help people who have PTSD,” Haidt said in his closing remarks. “That is not a question that we can just guess that ‘Oh, it would probably be helpful to them.’ That is an empirical question to be addressed by clinical psychologists who have done the research on it.”

Holdouts can buy a little time by claiming the jury’s still out, waiting for still more studies to confirm what’s already well established. But the research is robust, and any serious scholar who says it’s inconclusive is either uninformed or lying through chattering teeth.

Some professors and teachers are likely to prove recalcitrant, either because they fear activist students who demand content warnings could cause enough of a ruckus to derail their careers or because they believe flagging difficult material is kind. And kindness is always an untrammeled good, right?

Not so, say psychologists including self-help author Jordan B. Peterson, who warns that “undifferentiated empathy” is a hallmark of the Oedipal mother whose cocoon of safety contracts rather than expands, eventually becoming a suffocating tomb.

As they spread from the campus to the broader culture, trigger warnings have a disconcerting amount of staying power. Twitter is reportedly testing a content warning feature called “Heads Up,” and the U.S. National Archives even added “Harmful Language Alerts” to digitized versions of historical documents including the Bill of Rights and the Declaration of Independence.

If these interventions genuinely helped trauma survivors, we could debate their appropriateness in various contexts with an open mind. With no evidence to support the premise and some studies even predicting harm, any argument in defense of this vacuous pseudoscience is likely to turn on emotion rather than logic.

Preventing professors from littering their syllabi with obsequious trigger warnings would infringe on academic freedom. Better to leave them as voluntary calling cards for the incurious and incompetent.

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