Harvard study: Trigger warnings may impede resilience

By August 1, 2018

A soon-to-be-published study presents compelling new findings regarding the impact of trigger warnings. In this study, trauma-naive participants (people who had not experienced traumatic events such as rape, warfare, or natural disasters) were randomly assigned to either receive a trigger warning or not receive a trigger warning before reading potentially distressing literary passages. As a group, the participants who received trigger warnings perceived increased emotional vulnerability to trauma and also an increased belief that trauma survivors are vulnerable. In addition, trigger warnings increased anxiety for those participants who strongly believe that words can cause harm. “Trigger warning: Empirical evidence ahead” by Benjamin W. Bellet, Payton J. Jones, and Richard J. McNally, all of Harvard University, will appear in the in the forthcoming issue of the Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry. (Disclosure: McNally was my adviser in graduate school.)

A trigger warning is a “statement cautioning that content (as in a text, video, or class) may be disturbing or upsetting.” They are now used in many college classrooms. Experts disagree as to whether trigger warnings are beneficial, harmful, or both beneficial and harmful. Yet there has been little research regarding their use.

The researchers here were concerned that trigger warnings may be harmful for the majority of students, who have not yet experienced a major trauma but will encounter one later in life. Whether a person is likely to develop Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) owes to a number of factors, including the severity and type of trauma experienced, as well as additional factors which can either place persons at increased risk or offer increased protection. In the end, although the vast majority of people will experience trauma in their lives, only a small percentage will go on to develop PTSD. One concern over the use of trigger warnings, in light of this, is that they may unintentionally deliver the message that lasting, debilitating post traumatic symptoms are a normal response to trauma, when in fact they are not, and that being a trauma survivor necessarily becomes a central aspect of one’s identity. This matters because how people frame their experiences and what they expect their outcomes to be (so-called expectancy effects) impacts how resilient or vulnerable people are when they actually encounter the challenge of recovering from traumas.

To measure the impact of trigger warnings, the researchers assigned online participants to either receive or not receive trigger warnings before reading passages that varied in potentially disturbing content. Participants also completed questionnaires regarding perceived vulnerability to post-traumatic symptoms, a questionnaire assessing their views regarding whether words can cause harm, and an implicit-association test that tapped whether participants viewed themselves as resilient or vulnerable.

Strikingly, those in the trigger warning group, to a statistically significant degree, “believed themselves and people in general to be more emotionally vulnerable if they were to experience trauma.”

“Participants receiving warnings reported greater anxiety in response to reading potentially distressing passages, but only if they believed that words can cause harm,” the study authors note. “Warnings did not affect participants’ implicit self-identification as vulnerable, or subsequent anxiety response to less distressing content.”

When it comes to resilience, beliefs matter,” Bellet told FIRE of the results. “As our experiment shows, trigger warnings may serve as a sort of ‘threat confirmation,’ increasing anxiety responses for those who believe that words have the capacity to harm in the first place.”

Although trigger warnings are a well-intentioned attempt to accommodate marginalized students, they may have unintentional, detrimental effects,” he said. “Most notably, trigger warnings increase people’s perceived emotional vulnerability to trauma, which may increase the risk of developing PTSD if trauma occurs.”

While the study’s conclusions are important, it’s also important to be aware of its limitations. The most significant limitation to this study is that it does not address how trigger warnings impact people who meet the criteria for PTSD, so it cannot be assumed that the results would be the same for a trauma survivor population. The other significant limitation from a FIRE perspective is that the participants were not themselves college students. Additional research is needed to address how trigger warnings impact trauma survivors, and to investigate whether Bellet, Jones, and McNally’s findings replicate in a student population.

The use of trigger warnings in the college setting, as FIRE has frequently said, is a matter of an individual professor’s academic freedom, and colleges must neither mandate their use even if professors find them unnecessary, nor prohibit their use if professors find them beneficial. My perspective, as a research psychologist (my primary role at FIRE is to conduct psychological research regarding censorship) is that it is important to understand the impact of trigger warnings, including the nuances of the issue, so that we can better understand what the best practices would be, especially so professors can make informed decisions about trigger warnings. No single study can answer every question, and more research on the subject is greatly needed, but Bellet, Jones, and McNally have made a valuable contribution that deserves serious consideration and discussion.