A new study conducted by a group of Harvard researchers has found that “trigger warnings may inadvertently undermine some aspects of emotional resilience.”
The study was published in the Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry late last week. The researchers asked two groups of test subjects to read material that depicted graphic violence and then to report their stress levels. One of the groups was presented with a trigger warning before reading the material, while the other group was not.
The researchers found that the presence of the trigger warnings increased three major reactions: “perceived emotional vulnerability to trauma,” “anxiety to written material perceived as harmful,” and “belief that trauma survivors are vulnerable.”
“Participants in the trigger warning group believed themselves and people in general to be more emotionally vulnerable if they were to experience trauma,” they state in the study’s abstract. “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,” they continued.
The study, however, included “non-traumatized participants only,” and so “the observed effects may differ for a traumatized population.”
“Trigger warnings may inadvertently undermine some aspects of emotional resilience,” the study’s abstract concludes. “Further research is needed on the generalizability of our findings, especially to collegiate populations and to those with trauma histories.”
In other words, this study does not represent a complete takedown of trigger warnings for all people. For some people, particularly those who have endured trauma, having warnings that they might be about to read material that might trigger that trauma could indeed be helpful. It also may not be helpful — we just don’t know from this study, because it did not include that type of participant.
The point of trigger warnings is to allow people to prepare themselves to read potentially distressing content — presumably so they can prepare themselves enough to be less stressed out by it than they would have been.
Regardless of all of that, this study still provides a pretty good insight into how something that many people believe can only be helpful might actually cause some harm. According to this study, a person who might have been able to handle reading difficult material without a trigger warning would actually become less able to handle it because of one of those warnings. After all, the study found that seeing a trigger warning made participants more likely to believe that they would encounter lasting emotional difficulties from reading the material that followed — provided that that material was actually graphic. The study did not find any increase in anxiety from a trigger warning in “response to less distressing content.”
Although more research on this subject clearly needs to be done, this is still an important study. The whole point of trigger warnings is to allow people to prepare themselves to read potentially distressing content — presumably so they can prepare themselves enough to be less stressed out by it than they would have been otherwise. If it turns out that the impact of it is actually the opposite, then that’s obviously a huge problem.
As an aside, I would say that we have been seeing an overabundance of trigger warnings in our society over the past few years:
• In 2015, a feminist blog published a piece declaring that the phrase “trigger warning” is in itself triggering because it may bring to mind images of guns. On college campuses, we’ve seen trigger warnings and trigger-warning culture having an impact that can only be described as detrimental to students’ education.
• In 2016, I reported that Oxford University’s undergraduate law professors were providing trigger warnings before lessons about violent crime or rape so that students who might feel uncomfortable could leave — which potentially could result in a percentage of future lawyers with no idea how to deal with the law as it relates to violent crime or rape.
• In 2017, I reported that students in a Bible course at the University of Glasgow were being given trigger warnings and permission to leave class if they felt triggered before being shown images of the crucifixion — even though you’d think that the crucifixion would be something you’d know you’d have to learn about if you were wanting to pass a class about the Bible.
• Here in the United States, professors have been reported to have placed trigger warnings on everything from the movie Clueless to “anatomical names of body parts.” You’d have to be crazy to think that it hasn’t gotten out of hand.
It’s nice to want to care about people who have gone through traumatic experiences. We all should care about that, and I think that most people do. What we shouldn’t be doing, though, is causing anyone any additional or unnecessary stress — or decreasing the value of education that students receive at colleges and universities.