Modern academic literature often contains trigger warnings – statements intended to warn readers about potentially disturbing materials that might exacerbate their distress related to a previous trauma. However, a new experiment on U.S. students showed that reading passages about physical and sexual assault did not lead to much distress, regardless of trauma history, trigger warning type, and students post-traumatic disorder scores. The study was published in the Journal of American College Health.
Trigger warnings are meant to allow individuals who have experienced trauma to be warned in advance about material that may elicit unwanted, intrusive memories from their past. Theoretically, such warnings should be particularly protective of persons with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in whom such materials might trigger strong emotional and physiological responses. The idea is that if such people are warned in advance, they will be able to avoid emotional distress.
On another note, trigger warning may generate expectations in readers that might be problematic. Researchers warned that they may encourage avoidance and prevent the processing of materials related to trauma that might actually facilitate recovery.
Trigger warnings were a topic of much debate in the academia, but most of the research so far showed that trigger warnings have little effect – they do not lead to avoidance and do not change how students emotionally respond to materials. However, such studies mainly focused on whether trigger warnings are present or not, not on which form they are in.
To study whether different forms of trigger warnings in literature might have different effects, Matthew Kimble and his colleagues conducted a study on 123 undergraduate students taking introductory psychology courses. The students completed assessments of trauma exposure (Life events checklist – LEC) and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD checklist for DSM-5, PCL-5). There were no exclusion criteria for participation – all students were eligible to participate, but given the potential sensitivity of the topic, the researchers did not collect any demographic data.
Based on their assessment of trauma exposure (LEC), students were categorized into three groups. Those reporting experiencing sexual or physical assault were categorized to have a “Trigger Trauma”, those reporting other traumatic experiences were the “Other Trauma” group and those reporting no trauma were the “No Trauma group”. After completing the assessments, students (regardless of their trauma category) were randomly divided to either read a neutral passage or a triggering passage.
“Both passages came from Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye and the triggering passage included descriptions of both physical and sexual assault. The neutral passage was of similar length but included no physical or sexual assault content. The 91 participants who received the potentially triggering passage were further randomly assigned to receive a neutral trigger warning, a positive trigger warning, or a negative trigger warning,” the authors explained.
These three types of warning differed in how they framed the upcoming text and what they focused on – the neutral warning stated that some individuals may get upset with the materials, the positive warning emphasized that the text is an American classic frequently used in class, but that it may cause discomfort. The negative trigger warning focused on describing possible negative emotional reactions to the text.
After receiving the warning, students read the 18-page text for 30 minutes and completed an assessment of psychological distress (Subjective Units of Distress Scale). Two days later, participants were asked to complete the distress assessment again. Two weeks later, they were asked to repeat both the distress assessment and the assessment of PTSD they took on the first day (PCL-5).
“On average, the triggering passage was upsetting relative to the control passage, but distress did not differ based on trauma history,” the researchers wrote. Additionally, the level of distress experienced by students did not change based on the type of trigger warning used.
“All students were somewhat distressed immediately after reading the passage, an effect that dissipated in all groups from Day 1 to Day 2 and remained low. The passage did not appear to trigger symptoms of students’ personal traumas. Students responded the same to the passage regardless of whether the warning was positive, negative, or neutral. Thus, trigger warnings do not seem to generate problematic (or helpful) expectancy effects. This should inform instructors that, if they are inclined to give a trigger warning, the nature of the warning makes little difference,” the study authors concluded.
While study results lead to very clear conclusions, it should be noted that these findings represent an average response and do not negate the possibility that some individuals might respond strongly to a text. Additionally, study participants were students and the sample size was limited, so it is unclear how much the results can be generalized to other populations.
The brief report, “Students responses to differing trigger warnings: A replication and extension”, was authored by Matthew Kimble, Jennifer Koide, and William F. Flack.