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Study: Trigger warnings don’t work, may undermine emotional resilience


It’s Official—Trigger Warn­ings Might Actu­al­ly Be Harm­ful (Medi­um):

In the era of col­lege stu­dent sen­si­tiv­i­ties to a seem­ing­ly ever-increas­ing list of pos­si­ble offend­ing mate­r­i­al, the use of so-called “trig­ger warn­ings” has become com­mon­place on uni­ver­si­ty cam­pus­es. These warn­ings are usu­al­ly giv­en at the begin­ning of a class (or at the begin­ning of spe­cif­ic sec­tions of a class) to pre­pare stu­dents…”

After con­trol­ling for var­i­ous fac­tors, such as sex, race, age, psy­chi­atric his­to­ry, and polit­i­cal ori­en­ta­tion, the researchers found that those par­tic­i­pants who received trig­ger warn­ings were sig­nif­i­cant­ly more like­ly (com­pared to those in the con­trol con­di­tion) to sug­gest that they and oth­ers would be more vul­ner­a­ble to emo­tion­al dis­tress after expe­ri­enc­ing trau­ma.

Although there was no sig­nif­i­cant effect of which con­di­tion par­tic­i­pants were in on their gen­er­al anx­i­ety lev­el change (in response to mild­ly dis­tress­ing texts), or their imme­di­ate anx­i­ety respons­es to marked­ly dis­tress­ing texts, those who believed that words can cause harm demon­strat­ed a sig­nif­i­cant­ly high­er lev­el of imme­di­ate anx­i­ety to marked­ly dis­tress­ing pas­sages (com­pared to those not hold­ing this belief) in the trig­ger warn­ing con­di­tion, but not in the con­trol…The data in this study were clear–trigger warn­ings increase antic­i­pat­ed vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty to expe­ri­ence post-trau­mat­ic dis­tress, and when paired with the belief that words can cause harm, such warn­ings can active­ly increase imme­di­ate expe­ri­ences of anx­i­ety.”

The Study:

Trig­ger warn­ing: Empir­i­cal evi­dence ahead (Jour­nal of Behav­ior Ther­a­py and Exper­i­men­tal Psy­chi­a­try). From the abstract:

  • Back­ground and objec­tives: Trig­ger warn­ings noti­fy peo­ple of the dis­tress that writ­ten, audio­vi­su­al, or oth­er mate­r­i­al may evoke, and were ini­tial­ly used to pro­vide for the needs of those with post­trau­mat­ic stress dis­or­der (PTSD). Since their incep­tion, trig­ger warn­ings have become more wide­ly applied through­out con­tem­po­rary cul­ture, spark­ing intense con­tro­ver­sy in acad­e­mia and beyond. Some argue that they empow­er vul­ner­a­ble indi­vid­u­als by allow­ing them to psy­cho­log­i­cal­ly pre­pare for or avoid dis­turb­ing con­tent, where­as oth­ers argue that such warn­ings under­mine resilience to stress and increase vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty to psy­chopathol­o­gy while con­strain­ing aca­d­e­m­ic free­dom. The objec­tive of our exper­i­ment was to inves­ti­gate the psy­cho­log­i­cal effects of issu­ing trig­ger warn­ings.
  • Meth­ods: We ran­dom­ly assigned online par­tic­i­pants to receive (n=133) or not receive (n=137) trig­ger warn­ings pri­or to read­ing lit­er­ary pas­sages that var­ied in poten­tial­ly dis­turb­ing con­tent.
  • 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.
  • Lim­i­ta­tions: The sam­ple includ­ed only non-trau­ma­tized par­tic­i­pants; the observed effects may dif­fer for a trau­ma­tized pop­u­la­tion.
  • Con­clu­sions: 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.

The Study in Context:

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Categories: Cognitive Neuroscience, Education & Lifelong Learning

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