Trigger warnings DON'T work says Harvard Law professor

Trigger warnings DON’T work: Harvard Law professor saying they can actually cause GREATER distress and even leave colleges open to lawsuits

  • Jeannie Suk Gersen has taught at Harvard Law since 2006
  • On Wednesday she wrote in The New Yorker about trigger warnings
  • Gersen noted that Brandeis University in Massachusetts this year recommended against using the word ‘trigger warning’, finding it did more harm than good
  • Trigger warnings have been used in academia on works such as Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet
  • They warn people of sensitive topics, such as murder, suicide, sexual abuse and abortion  
  • Gersen said that several academic studies show that trigger warnings can actually cause more anxiety and heighten concern
  • Furthermore, ‘triggers’ are often far beyond study materials and can encompass things such as smells and sounds for those with P.T.S.D. 
  • She pointed out that universities could be held liable as a growing body of research suggests the warnings actually worsen anxiety 

A Harvard Law professor has hit out at trigger warnings in academia, saying they can actually cause greater distress and even leave colleges open to lawsuits.

Jeannie Suk Gersen, who has taught at the Massachusetts institution since 2006, wrote in The New Yorker on Wednesday about her concerns. 

She noted that Chinua Achebe’s seminal 1958 work Things Fall Apart and Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet were both seen as problematic – Achebe’s book for its themes of colonialism and racism, and Shakespeare’s for its discussion of suicide.

Yet she found that recent studies showed the trigger warnings – an alert to students, telling them to brace themselves for content that could revive difficult memories – could actually increase the trauma. 

Jeannie Suk Gersen, who has taught at Harvard Law since 2006, wrote in The New Yorker on Wednesday that she felt trigger warnings were frequently unhelpful – and could actually be harmful

Students are pictured in a class at Brandeis University. The Massachusetts institution recommended against using the words trigger warning, and suggested ‘content note’ instead

That is because the sight of the warning itself can cause immediate anxiety among people who’d potentially be ‘triggered’ by the content.

Gersen also cited a growing body of research showing that students who weren’t given trigger warnings about potentially upsetting study material were less affected than those who were.  

The academic said that she herself taught classes that dealt with the legal aspects of difficult topics such as sexual assault, divorce and suicide, but had decided against issuing a trigger warning.

‘My introduction to any course includes a statement that it will delve into many of the most controversial and difficult issues in our society, ones that may personally affect the lives of people in the class, and that all discussions must be conducted with respect for one another,’ she said. 

‘I don’t frame my statements as addressing triggers, and I don’t flag particular readings or discussions.’

She pointed out that Brandeis University, a liberal arts institution in Massachusetts, earlier this year released a ‘suggested language list’ – noting to avoid terms like ‘ladies and gentlemen’; ‘killing it’; and ‘picnic,’ because a picnic ‘can be associated with lynchings of Black people in the United States, during which white spectators were said to have watched while eating.’

The university also said that the term ‘trigger warning’ should be avoided, and the term ‘content note’ used instead.

‘”Warning” can signify that something is imminent or guaranteed to happen, which may cause additional stress about the content to be covered,’ their website states. 

‘We can also never guarantee that someone will not be triggered during a conversation or training; people’s triggers vary widely. 

‘Content note allows the same message to be conveyed, sharing details about the information/topics to come, without implying it is an exhaustive list or implying that someone is certain to be triggered.’

Oberlin College in Ohio introduced a trigger warning policy in 2014, she notes, but abandoned it following concern from academics.

The University of Michigan is one of the few universities to provide guidance on trigger warnings, she found. 

Gersen said that around a dozen psychological studies from 2018-21 ‘find that trigger warnings do not seem to lessen negative reactions to disturbing material in students.’

She cited a study this year from three academics – Benjamin Bellet, a Harvard Ph.D. candidate; Payton Jones, who completed his Ph.D. in 2021; and Richard McNally, a psychology professor – who found that ‘those who received trigger warnings reported greater anxiety in response to disturbing literary passages than those who did not.’

The trio found that trigger warnings served to reinforce the belief on the part of trauma survivors that trauma was central to their identity, rather than peripheral. 

‘Since there isn’t evidence that trigger warnings help, and there is now some evidence that they might even increase anxiety, McNally, Jones, and Bellet do not recommend the use of trigger warnings,’ Gershen writes. 

‘As Jones put it, “From a clinical lens, you should never do anything that doesn’t work, period, even if it doesn’t do harm. If it’s not actively helping, encouraging its use would essentially be engaging in clinical pseudoscience.”’

And she finds that trigger warnings may be little more than a teacher’s way of showing that they cared, and were conscious of social trends.

‘A trigger warning might really function as a signal to the subset of students who are looking for it that the teacher is sensitive to their concerns—or at least compliant with their requests—regardless of psychological benefit or harm,’ she writes.

‘But it is important to undertake it with the understanding that signaling compassion for students and trauma survivors in this particular way may be at cross purposes with helping them, whether psychologically or pedagogically.’ 

Gersen, a legal expert, said that as evidence grows that trigger warnings potentially do more harm than good, colleges could face liability issues if they continue to use them.

That could see a student sue their teachers for exposing them to a trigger warning that has itself been found to potentially cause anguish, and damage their mental wellbeing.  

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