Thomas Gallatin / July 31, 2018

Are Trigger Warnings Actually Harmful?

Overuse of trigger warnings can encourage greater anxiety rather than resilience in students.

Three Harvard University psychologists recently released a study wherein they researched the effects of “trigger warnings” on students. What are “trigger warnings”? Back in 2014, when the idea was metastasizing, Jonah Goldberg described them thusly: “They started on left-wing and feminist websites. Like a ‘spoiler alert’ in a movie review or a more specific version of the movie rating system, trigger warnings are intended to alert very sensitive people that some content might set off, or trigger, their post-traumatic stress disorder or simply offend some people.” So you can see why they became of a favorite tool of the social justice warriors.

In conducting their study, the researchers subjected two groups of students to literary passages that contained potentially disturbing violent content. Prior to reading the material, one group received a trigger warning about the content they were about to read, while the other group received no such warning.

The results:

Participants in the trigger warning group believed themselves and people in general to be more emotionally vulnerable if they were to experience trauma. Participants receiving warnings reported greater anxiety in response to reading potentially distressing passages, but only if they believed that words can cause harm. Warnings did not affect participants’ implicit self-identification as vulnerable, or subsequent anxiety response to less distressing content.

The researchers’ conclusion:

Trigger warnings may inadvertently undermine some aspects of emotional resilience. Further research is needed on the generalizability of our findings, especially to collegiate populations and to those with trauma histories.

In other words, it appears that overuse of trigger warnings can actually heighten an individual’s anxiety levels and fears rather than mitigate them. Consider us shocked — shocked.

Social psychologist Craig Harper writes, “This finding could have significant implications in the context of ongoing cultural debates about the power of language in reinforcing perceived oppression. That is, if we are telling students that words are akin to violence and can cause harm, and then giving them trigger warnings to compound that message, we risk increasing immediate anxiety responses rather than decreasing them.”

In a larger sense, this study’s findings appear like common sense to many people, especially those of an older generation. Just like any learning endeavor, there are fears to overcome. And often these anxieties come from a lack of exposure to a new experience. For example, for a child first learning to ride a bike, the prospect of the experience can be scary because it will more than likely include falls and scraped knees. However, the benefit gained in learning to ride that bike far exceeds the trauma of the initial learning experience. Similarly, for students to grow into well-rounded, educated adults who are ready to take on the challenges and responsibilities of interacting in the real world, they should be encouraged to confront their anxieties rather than be warned to avoid them.

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