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Warning: This Study May Change Your Mind About Trigger Warnings

caution tape illustrates a trigger warning study co-authored by Graduate Center Professor Deryn Strange
“Suck it up, snowflakes.Trigger warnings don’t work.”

By Beth Harpaz 
Editor of SUM

That’s how the New York Post summarized a new study co-authored by Professor Deryn Strange (GC/John Jay, Psychology). At least 16 other news outlets wrote about the research debunking the usefulness of trigger warnings, including The New York Times and Inside Higher Ed. The original study, published in Clinical Psychological Science, scored in the top 5 percent of all research outputs measured by the Altmetric data science company.

“We knew it would get attention,” Strange said in an interview. “We knew the results would be controversial. That’s why we did the studies in the first place. These trigger warnings are being rolled out and being called for, but no research had been done to determine if they were the right approach. That’s always the time for empirical evidence.”

Trigger warnings have become common in pop culture, workplace settings, and above all, academia, as a way to caution people about material that they might find upsetting because it’s violent, disgusting, or graphic. Students and others who say they’ve experienced previous trauma have been among those demanding the warnings. Strange and her co-authors cited prior research that found over half of U.S. professors now use trigger warnings in their course content.

For Strange’s study, 1,394 people took part in six experiments. Some subjects got a trigger warning, others did not, and all were exposed to “negative material,” including violent videos. Their symptoms of distress — including intrusive thoughts and ability to concentrate on an unrelated reading after seeing the negative material were then measured and analyzed.

The bottom line, said Strange: Trigger warnings “do not appear to do much. They don’t seem to be working in the way they were intended. Our results show the trigger warnings didn’t affect people’s feelings about the material they were looking it and didn’t diminish their reactions in any way.”

Significantly, similar results were observed whether or not the subjects had experienced or witnessed trauma in the past (such as domestic violence or a serious accident).

Strange says there’s even a case to be made that the “cumulative effects of trigger warnings could be harmful. There’s other evidence in the literature in terms of post-traumatic stress disorder responses that suggests that avoidance is not a good strategy for adapting.” In other words, students who avoid material because of trigger warnings may take longer to recover from PTSD because they aren’t processing their emotions.

Strange is a native New Zealander, as is the lead author on the study, Mevagh Sanson, a postdoctoral research fellow at The University of Waikato, New Zealand. “She was doing her Fulbright at John Jay when we came up with the research,” Strange said. “She sought me out ahead of time and came specifically to work in my lab.”

Strange said they went into the study figuring that the trigger warnings would either be helpful or harmful. “It could have gone either way,” she said, adding that she herself “was leaning more” to predicting harmful effects. “But our studies haven’t borne that out.”

Strange’s lab focuses on research related to memory distortion, particularly as it relates to traumatic events and how memories can change over time. One study underway now looks at alibis, and another is examining “body-worn cameras — they might not be as objective as we think they are.”

She added that it’s “certainly not my personality” to shy away from hot-button topics. “My work in my lab continues to be controversial,” she said.

Beth Harpaz is the editor of SUM. Follow her on Twitter at @literarydj.

Submitted on: MAR 25, 2019

Category: Faculty | General GC News | Psychology