So what about people who actually might be, you know, triggered by the material? Jones’ latest paper addresses just that question. The methods are the same as the 2018 paper, but with a pool of 451 participants who had experienced trauma. (A consent form required for ethical purposes did require that participants acknowledge that they would be reading emotional material, Jones told me, which is sort of a trigger warning all on its own but a required step of the process). In this population, trigger warnings still failed to lessen the emotional distress from reading a passage. The authors also found evidence, they wrote, that trigger warnings “countertherapeutically reinforce survivors’ view of their trauma as central to their identity.” Though more evidence is needed to say for sure, their research suggests that trigger warnings could be actively harmful to the very people for whom they are meant.
I then wondered if trigger warnings might help folks simply avoid the triggering material, a sort of opt-out system for people who aren’t up for dealing with it. But the evidence on whether people actually avoid material based on trigger warnings is mixed, Jones outlines in the paper. It could be that most people who have been through trauma see trigger warnings and plow ahead regardless. If they do end up avoiding the material and the associated adverse reaction, that’s not a good thing, either. “Cognitive avoidance is really counterproductive,” psychologist Darby Saxbe told Katy Waldman for a 2016 Slate story on the then-current science of trigger warnings, a point Jones also made to me. I know this extremely well from my days avoiding public speaking: Having an anxious reaction, and living to tell the tale, is actually an important part of learning to live with one’s brain.