Peer-Reviewed Study Suggests Trigger Warnings May be Harmful

A Scientific Experiment

A new study appearing in the Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry suggests that trigger warnings may foster vulnerability rather than protection.

The experimental design was simple: 270 people read passages from literature. Half were given trigger warnings (trigger warnings group), and half weren’t (control group).

The passages, drawn from literary classics such as Moby Dick and A Clockwork Orange ranged from trite and boring to violent and gory. The trigger warnings group received warnings for the passages which were rated as distressing in a pilot study (roughly 1/3rd of passages).

The participants self-reported their anxiety after each passage, and at the end of the study they filled out several psychological scales. Participants were told that the purpose of the exercise was to collect “feedback on passages from literature” and were given several sham questions at each stage to prevent them from guessing the study’s aim.

The results? No good news for trigger warnings.

The most notable finding of the study was that the individuals who received trigger warnings rated themselves as more vulnerable to future PTSD following trauma. This is important because those who rate themselves as more vulnerable to future trauma are indeed more vulnerable to future PTSD. These results were surprising because such ratings are typically very stable over time.

The trigger warnings group also rated others as more vulnerable to PTSD. In other words, giving trigger warnings may amplify stigma, increasing the perception that trauma victims are typically dysregulated and dysfunctional. In reality, only a small fraction of trauma victims develop PTSD.

Trigger warnings provided no tangible benefits in preventing anxiety: the groups were not significantly different. Looking closer, the researchers discovered that among individuals who endorsed the belief that “words can harm”, trigger warnings actually significantly increased anxiety levels in the short term. This suggests that trigger warnings may in some cases be doing the exact opposite of their intended job.

The effect sizes for all significant results were small. But even if the effects were nonexistent, it would still be worrying that trigger warnings don’t seem to have any tangible benefits.

There were also several reported tests that did not reach statistical significance. No relationship was detected between trigger warnings and implicit self-identification with vulnerability, and individuals’ beliefs about the predictability of the world did not moderate the relationship of trigger warnings to anxiety.

So What?

Trigger warnings have been around for several years, and they seem to be increasingly popular. Warnings range from informal heads-ups on social media to institutionally mandatory policies. Roughly half of professors report using them.

Most of the debate on trigger warnings has centered on the university classroom: when professors cover disturbing material, such as rape or genocide, should they warn students ahead of time? Professors are aware that these subjects can cause distress, and many regard trigger warnings as representing a common courtesy.

Critics have argued that trigger warnings reduce free speech, that they infantilize students, and that they encourage counter-therapeutic avoidance.

Despite the pervasiveness of discussion about trigger warnings, there has been virtually no scientific investigation on the subject. The experiment described above is the very first peer-reviewed article to provide direct scientific evidence on the matter.

The study suggests that trigger warnings may increase PTSD vulnerability and stigma among healthy adults without a trauma history. This leaves some serious gaps — for instance, the study didn’t include individuals with previous trauma histories or those diagnosed with PTSD. If individuals with PTSD greatly benefit from trigger warnings, the adverse effects observed in healthy individuals may be justifiable. But preliminary evidence from a yet-unpublished study suggests that trigger warnings may be even worse for those with elevated PTSD symptoms.

The jury is still far from out on this controversial topic — but the first scientific look does not look good for trigger warning advocates.

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