Peo­ple should be warned what they’re in for – but within rea­son.

New Zealand Listener - - CONTENTS - by Marc Wil­son

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.

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