FIRE psychology fellow to present on trigger warnings at international psychology conference

By June 26, 2018

On June 28, I will be presenting a discussion forum at the 29th International Congress for Applied Psychology in Montreal: “What we do (and don’t) know about trigger warnings, a brainstorming session.”

Cynthia Meyersburg.

More generally, I am very excited to attend ICAP for the first time. The International Association of Applied Psychology has members from around the world, with more than 80 countries represented.  The mission of the association is “to promote the science and practice of applied psychology and to facilitate interaction and communication among applied psychologists around the world.The congress occurs only once every four years, and it is an honor to have the opportunity to present. 

The use of trigger warnings in college and university classes is a fiercely debated practice. Some, such as professor Logan Rae of the College of Visual and Performing Arts in Syracuse, perceive trigger warnings as an equal access issue. Others, such as the co-founder and director of education at End Rape on Campus, Sofie Karasek, consider using trigger warnings to be a matter of basic decency and respect. And some others, such as professor Richard Vatz of Towson University, are very critical of their use, perceiving trigger warnings as growth inhibiting. Still others, such as professor Richard McNally of the Harvard University psychology department, posit that if a student requires a trigger warning, the appropriate response is not to issue a trigger warning but rather to actually treat the student’s PTSD. Others, such as professor Elana Newman of the psychology department at the University of Tulsa, have decided that they will use trigger warnings themselves and generally support the use of trigger warnings unless and until trigger warnings are empirically found to be harmful. I think all of these experts are sincere in what they write, and care greatly about doing what is right, yet the truth remains obscured. Despite the importance of the issue and diversity of opinions, scant data are available to evaluate their impact.

Although conducting psychological research is not the only work I do at FIRE, it is my primary focus. As a result of a grant awarded to FIRE by the John Templeton Foundation, I am able to conduct research investigating the impact of trigger warnings. I am part of a collaboration with other psychological scientists, led by Middlebury psychology professor Matt Kimble. (I am the only one of the scientists on the project who is funded by FIRE’s Templeton Grant.) Right now we are in the data analysis phase of the project; thus, we don’t yet know what the results of our project are. I also am aware that my graduate school advisor, professor Rich McNally of Harvard, and one of his graduate students, Ben Bellet, are conducting their own trigger warning research. And there may be others conducting trigger warning research right now; I hope there are. This is an important question, and it will require a body of work by different labs, using different methodologies, to determine if trigger warnings are useful, harmful, or perhaps both.

Through my ICAP session, I am hoping to generate research ideas and perhaps even foster collaborative research. I am excited to meet other scientists whose research interests overlap with mine. I am especially interested to hear what people whose experiences or training are very different from my own think about this topic. One of the most valuable aspects of hearing different perspectives is then being able to better perceive what my own biases and assumptions are. More research regarding trigger warnings may make it possible for policy and pedagogy regarding trigger warnings to have an empirical basis. The topic of trigger warnings is important, and it will require a body of work by different labs to determine if trigger warnings are useful, harmful, or perhaps both useful and harmful.

In addition to my own presentation, I’m eager to hear other psychologists discuss their research, especially where they may offer insights to debates over free speech. Georgetown University professor Fathali Moghaddam’s keynote presentation, “Understanding and Solving Mutual Radicalization: When Groups and Nations Drive Each Other to Extremes,” should be one such opportunity, given the increased interest being paid to radicalism and extremism as political climates have become more polarized. Likewise, I am looking forward to a symposium chaired by Peking University Professor Yiqan Gan: “Coping with Stress and Adversity Using Positive Psychological Resources: Effects of Resilience, Future Orientation, and Social Support,” given the crucial role resilience is bound to play in discussions of the efficacy of trigger warnings. Finally, Scott Lilienfeld’s keynote presentation: “The Humility Deficit: How Psychological Science Might Be Our Best Hope For Saving Us From Ourselves,” on June 30, is highly encouraged, though I myself will be unable to attend, as I will be en route back to the U.S. to present at another conference.

I’ll have more on that second conference for readers later this week; in the meantime, for anyone interested in attending ICAP in Montreal, it still is possible to register for the conference here.