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OPINION

Are Trigger Warnings Helpful or Harmful?

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Townhall.com.
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Editor's note: This piece was authored by Frances An. 

While at the University of Cambridge’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, I came across a poem with a trigger warning about its use of racial slurs. I walked on, thinking ‘as a person of colour, I should avoid offensive material that could cause me harm.’

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… Just kidding! Of course I scanned the poem eagerly, hoping for a dose of righteous outrage — or at least a laugh. I never found them.

My actions in this moment reflected what psychologists have termed the “reactance principle,” (also known as the forbidden fruit effect), which is a well-observed phenomenon that suggests people’s temptation to engage in harmful behaviours increases in the presence of prohibitive labels. This is because such labels are perceived as affronts to autonomy which people try to reclaim by indulging in the forbidden acts. Thus the museum’s trigger warning was not an effective guardrail against harm, but a challenge to my right to to engage with whatever material I pleased.

The reactance principle has been observed across a variety of fields such as smoking cessation where graphic labels increase people’s smoking (2017), health warning labels increase people’s desire for bad foods, (1998) and doctors’ advice and dosage instructions provoke noncompliance (1997). It is one of many suggested cognitive mechanisms that explain the unexpected effects of labels on human behaviour.

Like so many other paternalistic efforts to protect people, trigger warnings do more harm than good. They’re a nasty habit, and it’s about time our society gave it up.    

Theorists have debated the effectiveness of trigger warnings since at least 2016. Some have suggested that trigger warnings help vulnerable people decide and mentally prepare to confront traumatising material. More recent literature contends that trigger warnings reinforce fear by cementing the centrality of trauma to a sufferer’s identity. Other evidence shows trigger warnings do nothing unless they appear within a ‘holistic, trauma-informed framework.’

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Amid the raging debate, this article highlights that cognitive psychology research confirmed the ineffectiveness of trigger warnings well before they became a popular controversial issue. Far from discouraging dangerous behavior, trigger warnings may promote the unhelpful psychological patterns they aimed to prevent. 

A 2018 study by Mun Yee Kwan and colleagues showed how warning labels about edited fashion images increased body dissatisfaction and restrictive eating behaviour; the labels shortcut to respondents’ innate associations of thinness with attractiveness and celebrity glamour before respondents can process the labels’ meanings. 

As far back as 1991, social psychologist Daniel Gillbert observed the tendency for the content of statements to activate shortcuts in readers’ minds (e.g., emaciated model = beautiful/glamorous) before the statement’s full meaning can be intelligently understood (e.g., whether one should compare themselves to the emaciated model). Despite these findings on fashion warning labels, member of Parliament Luke Evans suggested a 2020 bill to the House of Commons that sought to bring in advisory labels that would state when an image has been digitally altered.

And so, trigger warnings are not just unnecessary — they can encourage counterproductive behaviours and harmful thought patterns. 

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Despite the evidence against their supposed benefits, some still claim we should still trigger warnings to demonstrate ethical care towards vulnerable individuals. 

Yet even this moral appeal falls flat: Trigger warnings are arguably a byproduct of a morally reductive world that spotlights approved victim groups and renders everyone else ‘part of the problem.’ Trigger warnings do not provide any additional information to a title or product description, invalidating the idea that vulnerable people use them to decide whether to engage with potentially distressing material. Thus, the sole purpose of trigger warnings is to signal which historical and psychological issues deserve social validation—and by extension, which ones should be sidelined. 

While it’s commonplace to slap trigger warnings on material related to slavery, racism, homophobia and other categories of violence that target trending marginalised groups, pockets of society whose unique sufferings go unnoticed are left to imagine that their hurts and social marginalization are somehow less important.

Trigger warnings are a visible reminder to viewers of the reductive identity politics game that validates some groups’ suffering and accuses everyone else of being privileged beyond redemption. While university students’ desire to capitalise on and even fabricate a marginalised identity has a narcissistic component, it is also a logical psychological defence: the alternative is to have one’s problems disregarded and to be dismissed as a utopia-dwelling colonialist, homophobic, racist etc.

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Trigger warnings amplify unhelpful cognitive patterns and have alienating social effects. They need to go.

Frances An is a PhD student in psychology, a founding member of Heterodox Academy East Asia, and an involved member of the Vietnamese community in Western Australia.

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