New Study: Trigger Warnings Might Make People Less Resilient to Trauma

"Trigger warnings may inadvertently undermine some aspects of emotional resilience."


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Academic trigger warnings—notes of caution that inform students about emotionally disturbing content ahead of time—may "present nuanced threats" to psychological resilience, according to a study that raises important questions about an increasingly controversial classroom practice.

The study was authored by a team of Harvard researchers and will appear in the Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry. (Reason obtained and reviewed an unedited version.) The study does not deal trigger warnings anything close to a fatal blow, but it does yield credence to the theory that forewarning students about challenging material may fail to prepare them for life's challenges.

The researchers sorted test subjects into two groups. Both groups then read passages from literature depicting scenes of graphic violence and were asked to gauge their anxiety levels. The passages came with trigger warnings for one of the groups; for the other group, they did not.

The study has limitations. Most notably, researchers did not use subjects with a history of PTSD, because it would be unethical to put their mental health at risk. The study also relies on the subjects' somewhat subjective answers about their moods.

Given these limits, the researchers are very cautious about making broad characterizations from their findings. Importantly, they did not determine that the mere presence of trigger warnings heightened subjects' anxieties about the passages. "Trigger warnings did not affect anxiety responses to potentially distressing material in general," they wrote.

Encountering trigger warnings did make participants think they were at greater risk of suffering long-term emotional harm by viewing the material, though. Trigger warnings also appeared to increase anxiety among subjects who had answered that they believed words could hurt them. Put another way, trigger warnings seemed to justify the anxiety the participants were feeling, and made them somewhat more likely to think their anxiety could mature into full-blown PTSD.

"Trigger warnings may inadvertently undermine some aspects of emotional resilience," the researchers conclude. They add that "further research is needed on the generalizability of our findings, especially to collegiate populations and to those with trauma histories."