Do Trigger Warnings Help or Harm?

A new study suggests that they are harmful, but it has major limitations.

Posted Aug 01, 2018

Pexels / Pixabay
Source: Pexels / Pixabay

Trigger warnings, or brief statements that warn about potentially upsetting content, are on the rise on college campuses, with 51% of professors reporting that they now use them. A professor might issue a trigger warning, for instance, before assigning literature that includes content depicting sexual assault or graphic violence because it is believed these topics may “trigger” or cause substantial anxiety for students who have experienced past trauma.

There is major debate about the effectiveness of trigger warnings. Do they give a useful “heads up” to content that may be harmful to those who have experienced trauma? Or do they limit free thought and undermine academic freedom, as the University of Chicago has told its freshman class? Can they hurt mental health by encouraging students to avoid difficult topics, as psychology professor Jonathan Haidt has argued?

A recently published Harvard study tackled these questions. Researchers Benjamin Bullet, Peyton Jones, and Richard McNally had participants read passages from literary texts like Moby-Dick or Crime and Punishment. But before reading these passages, half of the participants received a warning 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 researchers found that being exposed to trigger warnings caused participants to rate both themselves and others as more vulnerable to developing PTSD. Trigger warnings led to no self-reported differences in anxiety between the two groups overall, but for participants who already held the belief that “words cause harm,” trigger warnings led to an increase in anxiety.

While this study provides some initial evidence for why trigger warnings can be harmful, it has a major limitation: It was conducted with the general public, not with traumatized participants. Since trigger warnings are specifically designed for people with PTSD or those who would otherwise be sensitive to upsetting content that reminds them of past trauma, more research needs to be conducted.

The authors of the study addressed this limitation in their paper, and author Peyton Jones said on Twitter that the researchers plan to do a follow-up study involving participants with trauma histories. But, the authors have also proposed that trigger warnings may be counterproductive for individuals with PTSD because they encourage people to avoid trauma. Research suggests that avoiding trauma, while beneficial in the short term, can worsen symptoms in the long-term. One of the most effective treatments for PTSD is prolonged exposure therapy, which encourages repeated exposure to triggers so that patients can get used to them and no longer find them upsetting.

However, it is unclear whether trigger warnings actually cause people to avoid triggering content. In the classroom setting, for instance, students would likely not avoid required reading material. Instead, trigger warnings would simply allow them to mentally prepare for triggering content or give them the chance to choose when they want to be exposed to that content. It may be better to allow individuals with PTSD to choose when they are ready to engage with their triggering content instead of simply exposing them to it without warning.

Additionally, while the differences reported in the paper were statistically significant, they had small effect sizes, meaning that trigger warnings may not make a major difference for most of us. If researchers discover trigger warnings make a big difference for those with PTSD and a small difference for everyone else, it would be worth using them, since they could be an easy way for us to show respect and make things easier for those who are suffering.

Given how little research there is on this topic, it is useful that researchers are beginning to examine the effectiveness of trigger warnings. But this study shows only a part of the story, and more research is needed that considers individuals who have experienced past trauma. Until research is conducted with the target audience of trigger warnings in mind, it’s difficult to make any conclusions about whether they help or harm.