Don't blame trigger warnings 

"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.

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.


Comments (3)

Showing 1-3 of 3

Add a comment

Subscribe to this thread:
Showing 1-3 of 3

Add a comment

Readers also liked…

  • Arkansas condones child abuse?

    If Harrises and Duggars go unpunished, yes.
    • Jun 4, 2015
  • Must address racial inequities

    We mourn for the families of the dead at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. As we grieve it's time to rekindle a conversation about race in America and press for the changes that the Emanuel congregation championed for centuries — changes that also made it a target.
    • Jun 25, 2015
  • Racism is systemic

    In a speech on Sunday at Bethel A.M.E. Church, Gov. Asa Hutchinson played directly into the narrative of respectability politics, where white people tell people of color how they should respond to a situation and condemn responses from others in the community experiencing anger, rage and other expressions of grief.
    • Jun 25, 2015

Most Shared

Latest in Guest Writer

  • Schlafly's influence

    Phyllis Schlafly, mother, attorney and longtime antifeminist, died recently. What Schlafly promoted was not novel or new. Men had been saying that men and women were not equal for years. However, anti-feminism, anti-women language had much more power coming from a woman who professed to be looking out for the good of all women and families.
    • Sep 15, 2016
  • Global health is local health

    First with the 2014 Ebola outbreak and now with the Zika virus, Americans are becoming reacquainted with the fear of infectious disease. But although Ebola and Zika are both serious public health threats, they pale in comparison to three other diseases in terms of inflicting suffering and loss of life around the world — tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS and malaria.
    • Sep 15, 2016
  • One person, one vote

    Arkansas Secretary of State Mark Martin's recent stumbles have revealed quite a story.
    • Sep 1, 2016
  • More »

Visit Arkansas

Logoly State Park dedicates new visitors center

Logoly State Park dedicates new visitors center

Arkansas’s first environmental education state park interprets the importance of the natural world and our place within it.

Event Calendar

« »


2 3 4 5 6 7 8
9 10 11 12 13 14 15
16 17 18 19 20 21 22
23 24 25 26 27 28 29
30 31  

Most Viewed

  • Arkansas 2016: the microclimate election

    In the lead-up to the past four Arkansas election cycles, the forecast has been a fairly simple one: strong winds blowing in the GOP direction.
  • The big loser

    So now the big crybaby says he's losing because his opponent is crooked and the referees are blind.
  • Trumped in Arkansas

    After two solid debates and the release of a video and corroborating testimony that further confirmed the misogyny of Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton is favored to win the presidential election Nov. 8

Most Recent Comments

  • Re: The big loser

    • Here's some more information for the investigator from the Enquirer. It's a confession from somebody…

    • on October 21, 2016
  • Re: The big loser

    • Nobody here but you said anything bad about Shelton. Nothing that happened to her was…

    • on October 21, 2016
  • Re: The big loser

    • P.S. - To show you how incredibly honest I am - I said above that…

    • on October 21, 2016

© 2016 Arkansas Times | 201 East Markham, Suite 200, Little Rock, AR 72201
Powered by Foundation