The Volokh Conspiracy

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Triggered by Trigger Warnings

A new study suggests that trigger warnings may actually increase student vulnerability to offensive or troubling material.


Is it possible that "trigger warnings"—warnings to students and others that they are about to encounter potentially offensive or disturbing material—do more harm than good? A new study suggests that may be the case.

The study, "Trigger Warning: Empirical Evidence Ahead," by Benjamin W.Bellet, Payton J.Jones, and Richard J.McNally, was just published online by the Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry. For this study, the authors presented study participants with written passages with potentially disturbing content. One group received trigger warnings, the other did not. Lo and behold, those who received the warnings were more likely to believe the material was potentially traumatizing to themselves or others than those who did not receive such warnings.

Here are portions of the abstract:

Trigger warnings notify people of the distress that written, audiovisual, or other material may evoke, and were initially used to provide for the needs of those with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Since their inception, trigger warnings have become more widely applied throughout contemporary culture, sparking intense controversy in academia and beyond. Some argue that they empower vulnerable individuals by allowing them to psychologically prepare for or avoid disturbing content, whereas others argue that such warnings undermine resilience to stress and increase vulnerability to psychopathology while constraining academic freedom. The objective of our experiment was to investigate the psychological effects of issuing trigger warnings. . . .

Participants in the trigger warning group believed themselves and people in general to be more emotionally vulnerable if they were to experience trauma. Participants receiving warnings reported greater anxiety in response to reading potentially distressing passages, but only if they believed that words can cause harm. Warnings did not affect participants' implicit self-identification as vulnerable, or subsequent anxiety response to less distressing content. . . .

Trigger warnings may inadvertently undermine some aspects of emotional resilience. Further research is needed on the generalizability of our findings, especially to collegiate populations and to those with trauma histories.