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Harvard study shows that trigger warnings are fruitless and anxiety-inducing

Scientific evidence does not support the use of trigger warnings, which are described as a “disingenuous gesture of trauma awareness.”
An image of a woman holding a cell phone with potential trigger warnings.
naka / Adobe Stock / Big Think
Key Takeaways
  • A recently published meta-analysis on trigger warnings shows that they do little to prepare students for viewing potentially traumatic content.
  • By themselves, trigger warnings seem to heighten anxiety about stressful material and may encourage avoidance. 
  • Despite their apparent ineffectiveness, trigger warnings appear to be here to stay in higher education. 

Trigger warnings on college campuses have been controversial since they became more common and attracted public attention in the mid-2010s. Proponents argue that these statements, intended to help individuals prepare for or avoid potentially traumatizing content, make classrooms safe for students. Critics contend that they stifle free speech, coddle students, and backfire by exacerbating negative reactions.

Students are also divided on them. “It really disrupts the flow,” one anonymous medical student expressed to researchers as part of a qualitative study published last year. “People start thinking; ‘Oh, do I need to be upset about this?'”

“I think it benefits people who do not know that things are upsetting,” another said. “It might actually give them insight to their feelings and then signposting them to support services.”

Data supports the critics

Scientists have now had time to examine trigger warnings through controlled experiments, and their findings broadly support critics’ points. Last month, a trio of psychologists affiliated with Flinders University and Harvard University published a meta-analysis aggregating all the recent scientific papers on the topic to answer four questions:

“First, do trigger warnings change emotional reactions in response to material? Second, do trigger warnings increase the avoidance of warned-of material? Third, do trigger warnings have any effects on anticipatory emotions before seeing material (e.g., anxiety)? And fourth, do trigger warnings change educational outcomes (i.e., the comprehension of warned-of material)?”

The reviewers turned up 12 studies published since 2018 that attempted to answer those queries. In almost all of them, experimenters exposed subjects to photographs, videos, or written passages. Some participants were given a content warning beforehand, while others were not.

When the studies’ results were pooled together, the researchers found that trigger warnings had no effect on subjects’ emotional responses to the material, did not make them likelier to avoid it, and had little to no effect on participants’ comprehension. They did, however, slightly increase subjects’ anxiety prior to being exposed to the material.

Taken together, the results indicate that trigger warnings are “fruitless,” the researchers wrote. “Trigger warnings typically warn people about the distressing reactions they may have but do not explain how to reduce these reactions,” they added.

A trigger warning for trigger warnings

In a systematic review published late last year, a team of Australian scientists reached similar conclusions after scrutinizing the available research. “In our review of 20 peer-reviewed studies, published between 2010 and 2020, we found that trigger warnings can inflame existing stressors and exacerbate maladaptive behaviors, both of which can undermine students’ autonomy and their ability to cope with potential distress,” they wrote.

Expressing some nuance, the authors noted that trigger warnings can “be a valuable tool for assisting with the management and reduction of trauma exposure” for students with a history of particularly scarring experiences. At the same time, however, students should be taught skills to boost their mental resilience and to cope with potentially traumatic content.

“Relying solely on trigger warnings, especially as a disingenuous gesture of trauma awareness, does more harm than good,” they wrote, echoing a key gripe from the other research team.

Despite their apparent ineffectiveness, trigger warnings appear to be here to stay in higher education. At least half of professors reported using them in an NPR survey conducted in 2016, the latest year for which such data is available. And students increasingly seem to expect them. According to a 2022 survey conducted in the UK, 86% of undergraduates support their use, up from 68% in 2016.


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