“Trigger warnings” may do more harm than good, according to a study by a team of Harvard University psychologists.
Published on Friday in the Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, the study found that trigger warnings do not reduce the anxiety that people experience upon encountering a distressing text.
The alerts even had the opposite effect in some cases, increasing “perceived emotional vulnerability to trauma,” “anxiety to written material perceived as harmful” and “belief that trauma survivors are vulnerable.”
“Trigger warnings do not appear to be conducive to resilience as measured by any of our metrics,” the authors wrote. “Rather, our findings indicate that trigger warnings may present nuanced threats to selective domains of psychological resilience.”
The study was released as college students, professors and administrators have widely employed trigger warnings on campus to guard against upsetting materials including the Bible, the works of William Shakespeare and the U.S. Constitution.
Proponents of trigger warnings say they are necessary to protect victims of trauma from content that could evoke adverse emotional reactions. Critics argue that the alerts undermine psychological well-being by coddling people while posing threats to academic freedom and the mission of the university.
In the study, researchers tested the effects of trigger warnings by assigning 270 participants to read 10 passages from classical literature, five of which contained no distressing material and five of which contained distressing material, such as depictions of murder.
The participants were divided into two groups.
One group was given a trigger warning before each passage that read: “TRIGGER WARNING: The passage you are about to read contains disturbing content and may trigger an anxiety response, especially in those who have a history of trauma.”
The second group received no trigger warnings.
The study found that participants who received trigger warnings ended up with more fragile views of what they and others would be capable of after experiencing trauma.
Participants in the trigger warning group were also more likely to report greater anxiety levels after reading the passages, but this held true only among participants who believed that words can cause harm.
“Trigger warnings did not affect anxiety responses to potentially distressing material in general,” the study found. “However, trigger warnings may foster a self-fulfilling prophecy that increases anxiety for those individuals who believe that words can harm them.
“Hence, such warnings may increase acute anxiety by fostering an expectancy of harm,” the study continued.
The authors concluded that trigger warnings may “inadvertently undermine some aspects of emotional resilience.”
In a post on Medium, social psychologist Craig Harper said the study confirms that teaching students “words are akin to violence and can cause harm, and then giving them trigger warnings to compound that message,” is a bad idea.
“The data in this study were clear — trigger warnings increase anticipated vulnerability to experience post-traumatic distress, and when paired with the belief that words can cause harm, such warnings can actively increase immediate experiences of anxiety,” Mr. Harper wrote.
Mr. Harper said the findings support the hypothesis championed by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, who argued against the use of trigger warnings in a 2015 essay in The Atlantic.
“In their piece, Lukianoff and Haidt argue how gradual exposure to ‘triggering’ content has been established as an effective way to overcome responses to trauma,” Mr. Harper wrote. “Trigger warnings are the antithesis of this idea.”
Mr. Haidt, a social psychologist at New York University, responded to the study on Twitter, arguing that it provides “direct support” for his theory.
Jordan B. Peterson, a psychology professor from the University of Toronto and a frequent higher education critic, also commented on the study.
“Trigger warnings are precisely as counterproductive as any clinician worth his or her salt would expect,” Mr. Peterson tweeted.
Mr. Harper said the study is limited by small sample sizes and the fact that people with post-traumatic stress disorder were excluded from participating for ethical reasons.
“This study is a relatively small-scale one, and has a key limitation in that it used non-student sample which excluded those with actual trauma histories,” he wrote. “If the findings replicate in other samples, though, this could (and should) have knock-on effects in terms of the frequency that we use trigger warnings.”
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