Trigger Warning: This Post May Contain Scientifically Accurate Information on Trigger Warnings

July 9, 2015

My colleagues have made the case before that trigger warnings are bad for free speech, critical thinking, open debate, and the autonomy of adult college students. Potentially triggering material is essential to some fields of study: No law school education or bar prep course would be complete without a discussion of the law of rape. No clinical psychology education would be complete without a discussion of the psychological effects of rape. No history education would be complete without a discussion of the atrocities committed in wars throughout history. Trigger warnings would allow students in all of these fields to avoid open discussion of this important subject matter.

While all these arguments highlight the significant costs of trigger warnings, they do not address the other half of the cost/benefit analysis: the alleged benefits of trigger warnings. Trigger warnings supposedly protect students suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), a psychological condition that can result from traumatic experiences like military combat and rape, by allowing them to avoid ideas that trigger flashbacks and panic attacks.

But what if trigger warnings didn’t actually help PTSD victims? What if they even made the problem worse? That’s the argument Harvard clinical psychology professor Richard McNally makes in Pacific Standard magazine.

McNally describes five scientific findings that undermine the argument for trigger warnings. Most importantly, he says survivors are actually harmed, rather than helped, by trigger warnings. Citing a report from the Institute of Medicine, McNally explains:

Trigger warnings are designed to help survivors avoid reminders of their trauma, thereby preventing emotional discomfort. Yet avoidance reinforces PTSD. Conversely, systematic exposure to triggers and the memories they provoke is the most effective means of overcoming the disorder.

[Emphasis in original.]

With survivors’ psychological health as well as students’ educations at risk from trigger warnings, there can be little doubt that trigger warnings are a lose-lose proposition. For more of the science, check out the complete article in the Pacific Standard.