Study finds evidence that ‘trigger warnings’ can be psychologically harmful

Trigger warnings were originally implemented as a courtesy to people suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. But new research suggests that trigger warnings are not helpful when it comes to shielding non-trauma-survivors from distressing material.

The study, published in the Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, found that trigger warnings can increase peoples’ perceived vulnerability to trauma. For some participants, trigger warnings made emotional reactions worse rather than better.

“Our lab was interested in trigger warnings because they have been at the center of a good deal of controversy and debate (political, education, psychological, and otherwise), but almost no empirical research has been conducted on their psychological effects to date,” explained Benjamin W. Bellet of Harvard University.

In the study, 270 participants who were recruited online via Amazon’s Mechanical Turk were asked to provide feedback on passages from literature. Participants with a history of trauma were excluded from the study.

Participants read three mildly distressing passages in random order. The participants then read another 10 passages, five of which were neutral and five of which were markedly distressing. The participants then read three more mildly distressing passages.

Mildly distressing passages included themes regarding violence, injury, or death but lacked graphic details. The markedly distressing passages, on the other hand, contained graphic descriptions of violence, injury, or death.

Some of the participants received a warning before the markedly distressing passages, 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.”

The researchers found that the emotional responses to markedly distressing passages were not less intense among those who had received the trigger warnings.

“What we did not find was as important as what we did find — trigger warnings did not prove to be helpful, i.e. they did not successfully reduce anxiety to potentially distressing material,” Bellet explained.

The researchers did find that trigger warnings increased people’s perceived vulnerability to suffering long-term emotional harm because of trauma. Among those who had a strong belief that words alone can harm, trigger warnings were also linked to an increased emotional response to distressing passages.

“Trigger warnings may be psychologically harmful in specific ways, which include increasing individuals’ perceptions of their vulnerability to developing PTSD in the event of experiencing trauma, and increasing anxiety response for individuals who believe that written material has the capacity to harm,” Bellet said.

The researchers also didn’t find evidence that trigger warnings affected the emotional reactivity to mildly distressing passages that did not include a warning. In other words, participants who read the trigger warnings did not subsequently become more sensitized to mildly distressing material.

The study — like all research — includes some limitations.

“There are a few caveats,” Bellet explained. “First, our effect sizes were small, and we need replications of this study in order to have confidence in the reliability of our findings. Additionally, this study was not conducted in a student sample, so we do not know whether our results apply to that population or not. A replication in a college student sample is underway.”

“Although trigger warnings are well-intentioned attempts to accommodate marginalized groups, they may have unintended harmful consequences. Further research is needed to establish how reliable these harmful effects prove to be,” Bellet added.

The study, “Trigger warning: Empirical evidence ahead“, was authored by Benjamin W. Bellet, Payton J. Jones, and Richard J. McNally.