Date: October 24, 2020
“A new study published in the journal Clinical Psychological Science shines additional light on this ongoing debate and finds that trigger warnings offer little to no help in avoiding painful memories and perhaps are even harmful for the survivors of past emotional trauma.
“Specifically, we found that trigger warnings did not help trauma survivors brace themselves to face potentially upsetting content,” said Payton Jones, a researcher at Harvard University and lead author on the study. “In some cases, they made things worse.”
Worryingly, the researchers discovered that trigger warnings seem to increase the extent to which people see trauma as central to their identity, which can worsen the impact of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in the long run.
“Over the past decade, there has been extensive debate on the appropriateness of trigger warnings, particularly in academic environments, where they have been accused of promoting censorship,” Jones said. “Other critics have suggested the trigger warnings may create an unrealistic bubble, free from negative thoughts, which would not prepare students for life beyond academia.”
Whether trigger warnings are explicitly harmful was less clear, though Jones and his colleagues did find evidence that trigger warnings increased the belief that their trauma is an essential part of a survivor’s life story, which research has shown is countertherapeutic.
“I was surprised that something so small—a few trigger warnings in a short experiment—could influence the way someone views their trauma,” noted Jones. “In our culture, I think we overemphasize how important trauma should be in a person’s life. Trigger warnings are one example of this.”
“Trigger warnings alert trauma survivors about potentially disturbing forthcoming content. However, empirical studies on trigger warnings suggest that they are functionally inert or cause small adverse side effects. We conducted a preregistered replication and extension of a previous experiment. Trauma survivors (N = 451) were randomly assigned to either receive or not to receive trigger warnings before reading passages from world literature. We found no evidence that trigger warnings were helpful for trauma survivors, for participants who self-reported a posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) diagnosis, or for participants who qualified for probable PTSD, even when survivors’ trauma matched the passages’ content. We found substantial evidence that trigger warnings countertherapeutically reinforce survivors’ view of their trauma as central to their identity. Regarding replication hypotheses, the evidence was either ambiguous or substantially favored the hypothesis that trigger warnings have no effect. In summary, we found that trigger warnings are not helpful for trauma survivors.”