Free Speech

"What If Trigger Warnings Don't Work?"

"New psychological research suggests that trigger warnings do not reduce negative reactions to disturbing material—and may even increase them."

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From Harvard law professor Jeannie Suk Gersen, in the New Yorker:

Because trigger warnings involve assumptions about emotional reactions, particularly with respect to P.T.S.D., psychology researchers have begun to study whether trigger warnings are in fact beneficial. The results of around a dozen psychological studies, published between 2018 and 2021, are remarkably consistent, and they differ from conventional wisdom: they find that trigger warnings do not seem to lessen negative reactions to disturbing material in students, trauma survivors, or those diagnosed with P.T.S.D.

Indeed, some studies suggest that the opposite may be true. The first one, conducted at Harvard by Benjamin Bellet, a Ph.D. candidate, Payton Jones, who completed his Ph.D. in 2021, and Richard McNally, a psychology professor and the author of "Remembering Trauma," found that, among people who said they believe that words can cause harm, those who received trigger warnings reported greater anxiety in response to disturbing literary passages than those who did not. (The study found that, among those who do not strongly believe words can cause harm, trigger warnings did not significantly increase anxiety.)

Most of the flurry of studies that followed found that trigger warnings had no meaningful effect, but two of them found that individuals who received trigger warnings experienced more distress than those who did not. Yet another study suggested that trigger warnings may prolong the distress of negative memories. A large study by Jones, Bellet, and McNally found that trigger warnings reinforced the belief on the part of trauma survivors that trauma was central (rather than incidental or peripheral) to their identity. The reason that effect may be concerning is that trauma researchers have previously established that a belief that trauma is central to one's identity predicts more severe P.T.S.D.; Bellet called this "one of the most well documented relationships in traumatology."

The perverse consequence of trigger warnings, then, may be to harm the people they are intended to protect.