New study suggests ineffectiveness, and possible harms, of trigger warnings in college setting

May 1, 2020

A new study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied seeks to assess the effect trigger warnings may have on resilience, focusing in particular on college students who have not experienced trauma. Much of the discussion and debate around trigger warnings has focused on college students. The authors find that the use of trigger warnings increased short-term anxiety responses in test participants, while showing no effect on other aspects of psychological resilience. In other words, the authors did not find any evidence that trigger warnings helped participants, and some evidence that they may have a negative effect.

This latest study builds on a previous study by Benjamin Bellet, Payton Jones, and Rich McNally, all of Harvard University, published in the Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry in 2018. Here is how Cynthia Meyersburg, FIRE’s former Psychology Research Fellow, described the landscape facing the study:

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.

As Cynthia also noted in her analysis of the 2018 study, one important limitation was that the participants were not college students — the demographic around whom the bulk of the debate and discussion of trigger warnings has revolved. As such, it was unclear whether the 2018 study’s findings would replicate in a college student population.

Cynthia, as part of her research for FIRE’s SOAR project, joined the 2018 study’s authors on this replication study, joined also by professor Miranda Brenneman and Kaitlin Morehead of Coastal Carolina University. The study had 462 college student participants read a series of passages from various world literature texts familiar to many high school and college curricula. The participants were broken into two groups: a control group that was not shown trigger warnings, and a second group that was. 

Participants read a series of three passages rated as “mildly distressing,” followed by a series of 10 passages (five “neutral” and five “markedly distressing”), followed by another series of three “mildly distressing” passages. After reading each passage, participants rated the intensity of their responses in a number of dimensions. These responses were averaged out for each series of passages participants read, creating a baseline level of anxiety response that served as a reference point for changes in anxiety responses in subsequent readings. 

“[W]hat we failed to find is just as important as what we did find: in neither our original nor current experiment did trigger warnings work as intended. That is, they failed to reduce anxiety to distressing content.”

For the participants who were exposed to the trigger warnings, they had to click a radio button acknowledging the warning, which 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.” (These warnings were only provided for the “markedly distressing” passages and not for the “mildly distressing” passages.) 

Once participants had finished reading all of the passages, they completed a series of assessments, which measured, among other things, how they perceived their own vulnerability to emotional harm if they experienced a trauma; how they perceived this same emotional vulnerability in others; how strongly they believed that offensive or hurtful words can cause harm; and how they were generally predisposed to the use of trigger warnings.

What the authors of the new study found is that several of the key findings from the 2018 study did not replicate. In particular, the authors found either “substantial” or “decisive” evidence for nonreplication of previous findings that trigger warnings increased participants’ perceived sense of emotional vulnerability to trauma, both for themselves and others; the increased anxiety responses to mildly distressing materials that participants read after having been exposed to trigger warnings previously; and the finding that increased anxiety responses brought on by trigger warnings was strongest in participants who most strongly believed that words caused harm.

One small effect from the 2018 study did replicate, however: The authors found small increases in immediate anxiety response by participants viewing trigger warnings. That is to say that what may have been written off as a relative blip in the data on increased anxiety response to trigger warnings is much likelier to be meaningful, even if it is small. The authors write:

[W]hat we failed to find is just as important as what we did find: in neither our original nor current experiment did trigger warnings work as intended. That is, they failed to reduce anxiety to distressing content. Rather, both studies strongly imply that trigger warnings reliably cause small increases in anxiety in college students without a history of trauma.

Like any study, the authors note, there are limitations worth considering. For example, persons with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder were not included in the study. Further, the significant majority of participants were recruited from one private northeastern university, which may not be nationally representative. That being said, the majority of participants supported the use of trigger warnings, lending significance to the finding that they were broadly ineffective even in a population that was receptive to them. 

Does this mean that professors shouldn’t use trigger warnings? No, say the authors — though this study may provide guidance to those whose decision on whether to use them is grounded in data showing their effectiveness. As FIRE has frequently argued, the decision on whether to use trigger warnings is fundamentally a matter of a professor’s academic freedom, and universities run afoul of this by either mandating or prohibiting their use. And, as the authors note, there can be plenty of reasons unrelated to scientific study that factor into a professor’s decision to use them. Nonetheless, the authors provide valuable guidance into this decision-making process by showing what they did, and didn’t, find through their concerted use.