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Trigger Warnings Reduce Emotional Resilience and Increase Feelings of Anxiety, Harvard Researchers Find

Posted July 31, 2018

In a study published on 27 July 2018 in the Journal of Behaviour Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, a team of researchers from Harvard University report finding that trigger warnings do not diminish the stress people experience when reading unpleasant texts.

“Trigger warnings do not appear to be conducive to resilience as measured by any of our metrics,” wrote the authors. “Rather, our findings indicate that trigger warnings may present nuanced threats to selective domains of psychological resilience.”

Contrary to the belief of college and university administrators who employ trigger warnings at their institutions, they have been found to be either neutral or, in some cases, even negative, “increasing perceived emotional vulnerability to trauma” and fostering the belief that survivors of trauma are highly fragile.

In the study, researchers assigned 270 participants to two separate groups and had them read 10 passages from classical literature, half mostly neutral, and half containing more distressing material, such as graphic depictions of murder. The first group received a trigger warning, while the second group did not.

The study found that, as a result, participants in the first group perceived both themselves and other people to be more fragile, as compared to the views of the second group, and also reported greater levels of anxiety following the reading task, but only if they believed that words are capable of causing harm.

Trigger warnings may have the opposite effect of that intended. Image credit: Stupid Fish via, CC0 1.0.

Given their self-fulfilling prophecy-like effect, “such warnings may increase acute anxiety by fostering an expectancy of harm,” thereby inadvertently undermining at least some aspects of emotional resilience.

Responding to the study, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt of New York University claimed it provides “direct evidence” for the idea that gradual exposure to distressing content is an effective way of overcoming responses to trauma, which, they claim, is robustly supported by the evidence.

As to the drawbacks, the study is “a relatively small-scale one, and has a key limitation in that it used a non-student sample which excluded those with actual trauma histories,” claimed social psychologist Craig Harper who was not involved in the work. “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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