Yet Another Study Finds Trigger Warnings May Be Harmful. It’s Time to Do Away with Them

Although certainly well-intentioned, trigger warnings have created some pretty ridiculous outcomes.

Yet another study has found that trigger warnings are useless at best — and harmful at worst — and I’m ready to say that it is time to do away with them altogether.

The new study was conducted by Harvard psychologists Payton Jones, Richard McNally, and Benjamin Bellet. It represents a continuation of their research on this issue; they also released a study last summer that found trigger warnings might be harmful. The difference between that one and the new one is that this time, unlike in the previous study, the researchers tested people who had a history of PTSD — 451 of them, to be exact.

“We found no evidence that trigger warnings were helpful for trauma survivors, for those who self-reported a PTSD diagnosis, or for those who qualified for probable PTSD, even when survivors’ trauma matched the passages’ content,” the study’s abstract states.

“We found substantial evidence that trigger warnings countertherapeutically reinforce survivors’ view of their trauma as central to their identity,” the abstract continued. “Regarding replication hypotheses, the evidence was either ambiguous or substantially favored the hypothesis that trigger warnings have no effect.”

Got that? The best-case scenario is that they’re useless; the worst-case scenario is that they actually have the capacity to make things worse for trauma survivors.

Does that sound like something that should be kept around? I’m going to go ahead and say hell no, especially since (as I mentioned earlier) this is not the first study that has reached this sort of conclusion. Last summer’s study, for example, found that “trigger warnings may inadvertently undermine some aspects of emotional resilience.” What’s more, another study released earlier this year found that, although they’re not harmful, trigger warnings have only “trivial effects” on a person’s mental health. Maybe it’s just me, but I kind of feel like if the best review of something is that it’s pretty much useless — and its other reviews report that it may actually be harmful — then that thing’s not a thing that we should want to keep around.

What’s more, it’s actually not just me. Believe it or not, a columnist for Slate (yes, Slate!) wrote a piece saying that even she would like to do away with them after the findings of this most recent study.

Let’s face it: Although certainly well-intentioned, trigger warnings have already created some pretty stupid outcomes — particularly on college campuses. For example: In 2017, I reported that students in a Bible class at the University of Glasgow were being given trigger warnings before they were shown images of the crucifixion, complete with the disclaimer that they could leave the class if they thought they’d be uncomfortable. Other than the fact that the crucifix is a pretty common symbol in Western civilization — I’d be shocked to hear that even a single student hadn’t already seen a crucifix before taking the class — it also means that students were allowed to pass a Bible class without even being properly educated about what is arguably its most significant event. What’s more, this wasn’t the only instance of a trigger warning’s allowing students to pass classes without actually completing what would seem like the necessary coursework. In fact, in 2016, I reported that Oxford University’s undergraduate law professors were offering trigger warnings and permission to leave to students before lessons about rape or violent crime. As I noted at the time, this is not only stupid but also potentially harmful to society, because it could result in a percentage of future lawyers with no clue about how to deal with the law surrounding these crimes.

Other examples of trigger warnings that I’ve covered in the past have shown them being used in ways that were just plain idiotic. In 2015, I reported on a campus-climate survey that was distributed to students at several major universities that included a trigger warning to alert students that some of the questions would contain “anatomical names of body parts” — yes, like the sorts of words you might see in a middle-school biology textbook. Perhaps my favorite, though, was a piece that I saw in a feminist blog in 2015 that claimed that the phrase “trigger warning” was in itself a trigger, because of the association that the word “trigger” has with firearms.

Now, in the past when I had written about trigger warnings, I had limited my critique of them to only those examples that I found to be absurd, nonsensical, or harmful. Now, though, I am ready to take things a step further and say that we should do away with them altogether. To be clear, this is not because I don’t care about trauma survivors; it’s because I do care. After all, if there is any risk that these warnings could further harm the people who are struggling with these issues, and the best-case scenario is that they do nothing at all, then we should do away with them — not for me, but for the sake of the people trigger warnings were supposed to help.