Study: Trigger Warnings Are Basically Useless, Even if You’ve Been Through Trauma

(Wolfgang Rattay/REUTERS)
Research like this shows that questioning these kinds of things can actually have some value.

A new study in the Clinical Psychological Science journal is reporting that trigger warnings have only “trivial effects” on a person’s mental health, even if that person has been traumatized, and that the warnings are therefore mostly useless.

Mevagh Sanson, of the University of Waikato, the paper’s first author, told the Association for Psychological Science: “We, like many others, were hearing new stories week upon week about trigger warnings. . . . Our findings suggest that these warnings, though well intended, are not helpful.”

In the study, the researchers conducted six experiments with 1,394 subjects. Some of the participants viewed a trigger warning before viewing some selected content, while others did not. After viewing the content, the subjects were then asked to report symptoms of distress — and the study found that there was very little difference in distress levels between those who had viewed the trigger warnings and those who had not, regardless of whether or not the subjects in question had experienced past trauma.

“These results suggest a trigger warning is neither meaningfully helpful nor harmful,” Sanson also told the Association for Psychological Science, adding: “Of course, that doesn’t mean trigger warnings are benign.”

“We need to consider the idea that their repeated use encourages people to avoid negative material, and we already know that avoidance helps to maintain disorders such as PTSD,” Sanson continued. “Trigger warnings might also communicate to people that they’re fragile and coax them interpret ordinary emotional responses as extraordinary signals of danger.”

What’s more, this new study is actually kinder to trigger warnings than a study that was conducted by Harvard last year. That study, which I wrote about at the time, actually found that trigger warnings weren’t just useless, they were actually harmful: The subjects in the study who had viewed trigger warnings reported “greater anxiety in response to reading potentially distressing passages, but only if they believed that words can cause harm.” That study, however, had included only participants without a history of trauma, and the study’s authors made it clear that the results might be different for people who had experienced that sort of thing.

This new study, however, seems to suggest that this isn’t the case — that, at the very least, trigger warnings are a total waste of time and ink. Honestly, I think that it’s so important to see that this is even being studied in the first place. All too often, when something is championed by the social-justice crowd, people are all too ready to just accept it, for fear of being labeled as insensitive and awful if they don’t. (You are questioning trigger warnings? You don’t care about people with PTSD!) Studies such as this show that it’s helpful to question these kinds of things — and we should continue to do so.


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