“Trigger warnings” have recently resurfaced in the news because of a letter from a University of Chicago dean of students that warned incoming freshmen to not expect advance notice of potentially upsetting material in the classroom. Among the voices defending the letter was a Sept. 13 op-ed in the New York Times by Richard J. McNally, a professor of psychology at Harvard University. Its headline summed up McNally’s argument: “If You Need a Trigger Warning, You Need P.T.S.D. Treatment.”
This is not only a misrepresentation of science but, even worse, a misuse of the authority of science in the service of ideological persuasion. My experiences as a student, teacher and researcher of psychology (at Hendrix College, the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences and New York University) are in stark contrast to the supposedly objective rendering of scientific truth that McNally constructs.
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The author begins with a specious tone of impartiality, describing the two sides of the debate: “Trigger warnings, critics claim, imperil academic freedom and further infantilize a cohort of young people accustomed to coddling by their helicopter parents. Proponents of trigger warnings point out that many students have suffered trauma, exemplified by alarming rates of sexual assault on campus. Accordingly, they urge professors to warn students about potentially upsetting course materials and to exempt distressed students from classes covering topics likely to trigger post-traumatic stress disorder, or P.T.S.D., symptoms, such as flashbacks, nightmares and intrusive thoughts about one’s personal trauma.”
McNally then goes on to conclude that (1) if you need trigger warnings, you have PTSD and (2) if you have PTSD, trigger warnings are, in his words, “counter-therapeutic.” The logical link here is quite distorted.
First, you can have significant emotional reactions to memories (or stimuli that are associated with such memories), and these emotional reactions can be negative, and these memories can be traumatic, all without fulfilling criteria for PTSD. Also, not all trigger warnings are about memories or past trauma (one of several reasons why a better descriptive phrase would be something like “content warning”). You can want to prepare yourself for publicly encountering emotionally laden material and not be in need of psychiatric treatment.
Second, McNally argues that for those who do have PTSD, trigger warnings are counter-therapeutic because they enable avoidance of trauma reminders, thereby running counter to the aim of exposure therapy, which is to confront fearful situations until they gradually lose their emotional significance. This presupposes, perplexingly, that such therapy should entail random, uncontrollable and public exposure to trauma reminders at the hands of unskilled practitioners. Meanwhile, even in controlled laboratory experiments involving “normal, healthy” subjects without any history of trauma, mere exposure is not always an effective means of diminishing fear responses — and such laboratory models are a far cry from real trauma, in which the aversive outcomes and the acquired emotional responses are much stronger and more entrenched.
Scientists and clinicians are working to develop augmentations or alternatives to classic exposure therapy. Research suggests one means of more effectively extinguishing fear and promoting future resilience is the ability to control the avoidance of stimuli that have acquired some emotional salience. Conversely, being unexpectedly exposed to the same fearful stimuli — without having any agency in the process — helps to preserve fear.
In other words, the sense of agency that trigger warnings provide seems beneficial. And the omission of trigger warnings — that is, subjecting students to negative emotional material, akin to an uncontrollable stress manipulation — seems “counter-therapeutic.”
As a student and teaching assistant, I have seen emotionally fraught material (such as first-person, graphic descriptions of sexual abuse) used not in the service of any kind of intellectual advancement, but as sensationalism — a means to capture the attention of students. Creating safe places for students is clearly not about a refusal to engage with intellectually challenging material but about enabling students to more fully and productively engage with that material.
Jennifer Lenow is a Hendrix College graduate pursuing a Ph.D. in cognition and perception at New York University. She previously conducted trauma-related research at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences.