Trigger Warnings in College: Do Individual Differences Matter?

warning sign

I recently read some op-eds that strongly criticized the use of trigger warnings in college (Goldberg, 2014; Lukianoff & Haidt, 2015). Trigger warnings are basically brief oral or written warnings that certain course content may be emotionally disturbing to some students.

The issue has become a heated debate. But because there is little to no research that has directly studied the effects of trigger warnings, we are left to our own opinions. Scary. Because without research, biases can run rampant.

Some think trigger warnings treat students like babies and threaten professors’ academic freedom. Others think trigger warnings can save some students from emotional trauma.

Both sides of the debate have their biases and make some valid points, but so far I’ve found that many of those who argue against trigger warnings seem to commit more of the classic logical fallacies. Those fallacies include ad hominem, cherry-picking, slippery slope, strawman, and dichotomous (or black-and-white) thinking (see


Take an official report from the American Association of University Professors (AAUP). They wrote that “trigger warnings suggest that classrooms should offer protection and comfort rather than an intellectually challenging education.” This statement reflects a false dichotomy because a classroom can offer both protection and intellectual challenge to different degrees for different students. Also, to depict the pro-warning side in this exaggerated way might represent the strawman fallacy. (See

Lukianoff and Haidt’s (2015) op-ed against trigger warnings was persuasive on many levels, but they concluded by recommending that all universities endorse the AAUP’s report above. The op-ed even quoted the report’s simplistic black-and-white depiction of the issue.

There is some research that is indirectly relevant to this debate. Studies on cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) suggest that people with anxiety disorders should not avoid the source of anxiety. CBT makes clients face their fears little by little which is stressful but ultimately helpful. Thus, some authors and educators argue that trigger warnings are bad, because they allow students to avoid their fears. Make sense? Not really.

The most obvious problem is that instructors are usually not trained therapists, and class periods are not therapy sessions. But more important for the point I want to make, CBT is not helpful to all who suffer from anxiety and may be no more helpful than other therapies (Baardseth et al., 2013).

Depending on the population and criteria used, CBT success rates can be as low as 25-40% (though usually closer to 60%). So all clients who agree to the treatment (and many don’t) will experience the “necessary” stress of facing their fears, but many still don’t get better for their trouble (e.g., Wergeland et al., 2014; Westra & Dozois, 2006).*

My point is that people are so different from each other. What’s helpful for one might not be helpful for another.

individual differences

In online discussion threads, many make fun of the students who ask for trigger warnings. In reply, some of those students share their psychological problems and profusely thank their professors who provided those warnings. Others share how stressed they got in a class without the warnings.

We cannot assume that what’s okay for one student (e.g., graphic content without warning) will not be harmful for another. Such assumptions risk the biases of overgeneralization and stereotyping, which overlook individual differences.

Some who argue against all trigger warnings acknowledge the risk of harm but seem to say it’s for the greater good. Yes, in my view (which may be biased), the question should not be whether trigger warnings are simplistically good or bad for students but rather whether the risk of harm to the few in a warning-free classroom is outweighed by the argued benefits to others.


*Note. I am not clinically trained and am not recommending one way or the other what treatment individuals with anxiety disorders should seek. By most accounts, CBT is the best evidence-based treatment available for several disorders, including anxiety and depression.



Baardseth, T. P., and colleagues (2013). Cognitive-behavioral therapy versus other therapies: Redux. Clinical Psychology Review, 33, 395–405.

Goldberg, J. (2014, May 19). The peculiar madness of “trigger warnings.” Los Angeles Times. Retrieved from

Lukianoff, G., & Haidt, J. (2015, September). The coddling of the American mind. The Atlantic. Retrieved from

Wergeland,, G. J. H., and colleagues (2014). An effectiveness study of individual vs. group cognitive behavioral therapy for anxiety disorders in youth. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 57, 1-12.

Westra, H. A., & Dozois, D. J. A. (2006). Preparing clients for cognitive behavioral therapy: A randomized pilot study of motivational interviewing for anxiety. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 30, 481-498.


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