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To Warn or Not to Warn

We have used Content Warnings (aka Trigger Warnings) on a few of the works we’ve published. In all of these cases, the warning was added at the request of the contributor. We are now questioning this practice.

The Association for Psychological Science has posted the results of a study that suggests Trigger Warnings have little to no positive benefit, and may even cause adverse reactions. Here’s the summary (emphasis added):

Trigger warnings alert trauma survivors about potentially disturbing forthcoming content. However, empirical studies on trigger warnings suggest that they are functionally inert or cause small adverse side effects. We conducted a preregistered replication and extension of a previous experiment. Trauma survivors (N = 451) were randomly assigned to either receive or not to receive trigger warnings before reading passages from world literature. We found no evidence that trigger warnings were helpful for trauma survivors, for participants who self-reported a posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) diagnosis, or for participants who qualified for probable PTSD, even when survivors’ trauma matched the passages’ content. We found substantial evidence that trigger warnings countertherapeutically reinforce survivors’ view of their trauma as central to their identity. Regarding replication hypotheses, the evidence was either ambiguous or substantially favored the hypothesis that trigger warnings have no effect. In summary, we found that trigger warnings are not helpful for trauma survivors.

I’m not saying we won’t use Content Warnings, but we’re going to keep this information in mind from now on. Contributors are welcome to include CWs in submissions, as well as to request that a CW be included with their published work. As a survivor of sexual victimization and abuse living with CPTSD, I have not found CWs to be necessary for me personally. But I would like to hear from other survivors and writers.

What do you think? You may leave a comment here, or share your thoughts through our contact form.

4 thoughts on “To Warn or Not to Warn”

  1. I’m a trauma survivor as well. I use content warnings on my writing because journals have said they want them and some readers have requested the warnings. However, I can read almost anything so the warnings have no effect on me nor does reading most writing. I know what I will and will not read regardless of warnings.

  2. black and white photo profile of an androgynous person with short, cropped hair, and a prominent nose

    Thanks for weighing in, Mona. It’s probably safer to err on the side of using them, rather than not. If nothing else, it signals to readers that we are aware of, and considerate of, trauma survivors.

    Hopefully, there will be more research and discussion of these things in the literary community.

  3. If that is not appropriate, I would like to link a review I wrote time ago about a beautiful poetry collection. That is the only time when I briefly addressed the concepts of CW—because I felt I had to—in the very last paragraph.
    Personally, I had never realized (until now) that CW were meant for PTSD readers… and I guess this says it all. I have been disciplined about it out of obvious respect for the community, but I have always assumed they were meant for sensitive/self-protective individuals who strongly cared to avoid emotions/imagery they didn’t know (and especially didn’t want to know) about. I assumed that “PTSD readers” would be the last to be shattered by verbal representation of realities/memories with which they have learned to deal on a regular basis. — I also feel that in a non-infantilized world anyone is capable of closing a book, or turning off a screen, when/if the contents are disturbing. So, I keep being disciplined , but I feel that I am rather performing a ritual.

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