People should be warned what they’re in for – but within reason.
There is discussion in many universities about the need for trigger warnings in course syllabi.
The first rule of IAPS is that you can’t talk about IAPS. I really just wanted to start with that line.
The IAPS I’m referring to is not the International Association of Physics Students, or the International Association for the Philosophy of Sports (who knew?) or even the intriguing International Association of Pastel Societies. I’m talking about the International Affective Picture System.
IAPS is “a large set of standardised, emotionally evocative … colour photographs that includes contents across a wide range of semantic categories”, says the Centre for Emotion and Attention at the University of Florida. I guess it is okay for me to talk about it after all.
The photographic database is used in emotional assessments, and people’s reactions are measured in three categories: valence, arousal and dominance. Valence and arousal are pretty easy to grasp. Valence is “goodness” versus “badness” of the object – puppies good, snakes bad. Arousal is the kind of “energy” evoked – excited is higher arousal than relaxed. Dominance is to do with what is “dominant” in the picture – people are more “dominant” than things.
These pictures have been “normed” so that when you show picture X to someone, you know if it’s high or low valence and arousal, and can use it to test stuff. You can use IAPS to influence how sad someone is or to assess attention, for instance.
It is freely available for research use, but there are conditions for other use – thou shalt not post them on your blog, for instance. It’s important that, as much as possible, people being assessed are seeing the pictures for the first time.
Some of the pictures, though, are revolting. It is crucial that subjects give informed consent before participating in a study that uses things such as the high-negativevalence and high-arousal pictures. We do the same with high-positive, high-arousal pictures – “erotica”.
There is ongoing discussion in many universities about the need for trigger warnings in course syllabi.
This got me thinking about trigger warnings – topical in recent discussions about the sometimes traumatic accounts in texts used in English literature courses (I will never read Lord of the Flies a second time) and the reclassification of the remake of A Star is Born, which includes a suicide scene.
There is ongoing discussion in many universities about the need
(or otherwise) for trigger warnings in course syllabi – “This course will involve discussion of [insert unpleasant topic]”.
Now, I understand why institutions are having this discussion and think it’s necessary. But it needs to be a nuanced discussion. The well-intentioned desire to not “trigger” people who’ve had traumatic experiences needs to recognise that PTSD, the strongest manifestation of what we’re trying to avoid, isn’t just triggered by being exposed to things that are like the actual traumatic experience.
Indeed, it’s not always easy for PTSD experts to be able to predict what apparently innocuous things will induce a post-traumatic flashback.
There’s also good reason to think that trigger warnings can sensitise people to the idea that they might be horrified or traumatised when they otherwise wouldn’t have been.
That said, we should warn people about unpleasant IAPS pictures in advance. We just need to be confident we know what we’re protecting people against.
Friend or foe? Standardised IAPS pictures are useful in emotion and attention testing.