Two weeks ago, administrators at Cornell University rejected a notable student resolution. The resolution sought to require faculty to provide trigger warnings for content that students may find traumatic, or offer the ability to opt out of those sessions.
Cornell is far from the first university to face this type of resolution. However, in an environment where many administrators have felt pressure to cater to students they now view as customers, Cornell’s decision stands out.
In the announcement of the rejection, President Martha Pollack and Provost Michael I. Kotlikoff emphasized the administration’s belief that mandatory trigger warnings would lead faculty to avoid more difficult topics. In turn, they noted that this avoidance would diminish students’ capacity to discuss and address topics outside their actual or perceived comfort zone. In particular, they said:
“Learning to engage with difficult and challenging ideas is a core part of a university education: essential to our students’ intellectual growth, and to their future ability to lead and thrive in a diverse society. As such, permitting our students to opt out of all such encounters, across any course or topic, would have a deleterious impact both on the education of the individual student and on the academic distinction of a Cornell degree.”
Cornell’s leadership seems to believe trigger warnings do more harm than good for students and have drifted far from their original purpose.
The concept of a psychological trigger was initially popularized in the aftermath of the Vietnam War—it was typically reserved to describe the plight of veterans who returned home with severe post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. The use of the term was then expanded to other cases of PTSD or severe mental illness.
Over time, however, the concept of a psychological trigger has been misused. Today, this term is commonly used to describe feelings of discomfort, psychological strain or negative emotion. It’s become common to hear someone say, “I am triggered,” or describe another person’s reaction by saying, “he was so triggered,” in a variety of situations. Given the term’s original context, it’s likely a poor choice of words to use in most situations; however, it has become ubiquitous.
Similarly, the practice of trigger warnings has become increasingly widespread, especially in higher education. The effect of this spread is a point of fierce contention.
Proponents of trigger warnings assert that they help make learning environments more inclusive and support people who have suffered trauma in some way. However, trigger warnings can be counterproductive for a few key reasons:
- Our definition of trauma, or what is considered triggering, has gradually expanded to include anything that may create discomfort by one’s own definition. This has made it easy for students to opt out of learning about a wide range of essential topics, such as war, systemic racism, or genocides such as the Holocaust.
- There is a body of evidence that trigger warnings don’t actually achieve the desired outcome: improving mental health. Numerous global academic and psychological studies have concluded that trigger warnings cause people to become more anxious and may actually cause more harm and anxiety. In researching this post, I could not find credible articles that found trigger warnings achieve their stated objective.
- Trigger warnings are part of a broader movement in society to avoid things that are uncomfortable and conflate discomfort with danger. This avoidance strategy is possible in schools, but it’s impractical in the real world and inhibits the building of resilience, which is vital to success. Constantly shielding someone from “triggering” content may prevent them from learning to cope with their emotions or deal with difficult situations.
Avoidance of discomfort is not even the preferred approach for psychologists whose patients deal with severe mental health issues. Cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT, is the gold standard for dealing with these challenges, and it’s a framework that teaches patients to change their reactions to triggers, rather than avoid them. CBT also teaches individuals how to identify negative thought patterns and challenge them, and how to develop coping strategies and skills for managing emotions. Over time, CBT helps people learn to desensitize themselves to triggers and become more resilient.
Discomfort is an inevitable part of life, as is pain. And while efforts to shield students from pain or discomfort in the classroom are well intentioned, the research is increasingly telling us this approach only hurts students in the long run.
The fact is that life doesn’t provide trigger warnings. Accordingly, the best thing we can do is to teach students, and adults, how to challenge negative thought patterns, manage their emotions and withstand the challenges of life. This is yet another case where some short-term pain yields long-term gains.
Quote of The Week
“You can’t calm the storm, so stop trying. What you can do is calm yourself. The storm will pass.”