Trigger warnings are everywhere. They’re on television, movies, newscasts, podcasts, radio shows, on the internet, in conversation, and, especially, they're on college campuses, where a 2016 survey found that about half of professors have used them. If there’s a chance that someone, somewhere, could be triggered, there’s a distinct possibility we’ll be warned about it.
But despite the ubiquity of trigger warnings, evidence keeps mounting that they do little to help people, and, in fact, may actually be counterproductive for people who've experienced trauma.
Payton Jones and Benjamin Bellet, both PhD candidates at Harvard, have completed their third study on trigger warnings, which will be published in the journal Clinical Psychological Science. Their prior work looked at college students and the general population, but this time, they focused specifically on survivors of trauma—exactly the population trigger warnings are supposed to help. The idea is to give those with PTSD time to prepare themselves for a potentially difficult emotional experience, or even to allow them to opt-out.
For this study, participants were asked to read various passages from literature—some, like Crime and Punishment, with graphic scenes of violence, murder, and rape—and other passages with neutral material. Some participants were given a notice that the content they were about to read "might be distressing to people who've experienced trauma." Others were not given this warning, and afterward, everyone filled out a survey about their emotions. In this case, the researchers were particularly interested in how trigger warnings affected participants’ anxiety.
What the researchers found shouldn’t be particularly surprising to those who’ve kept up with the debate: “Overall, we find that trigger warnings do not have an impact on individuals' anxiety,” Jones told me. “Then we looked at more specific subgroups. For those who self-reported a PTSD diagnosis, we find no effect. For those who qualify for a probable PTSD diagnosis according to a symptom measure, they probably have a very small increase in anxiety." In other words, for those people, the trigger warning made things slightly worse. "But overall, it's a lot of null results. The trigger warnings are really not doing anything."
Where they do have a potentially adverse impact, Jones says, is to increase scores on something called the "centrality of event scale," which measures the extent to which someone sees trauma as something that defines who they are. Jones says that the higher the centrality of a traumatic event—in other words, the more an event is seen as important—the worse long-term outcomes tend to be.
“Trigger warnings are a sort of social signal that your identity as someone who experienced trauma is important and that it should matter," Jones says. "We think that trigger warnings may be reinforcing this notion that because you've experienced trauma, you're different from other people.” And, ultimately, this could make symptoms worse, not better, by reminding people not just of their trauma, but its impact.
Still, some have argued that even if trigger warnings don’t make people better equipped to deal with emotionally charged content, at least they allow people to skip that content altogether.
But there’s a danger in that approach, too. "As someone in the trauma field, I tend to be very skeptical that avoidance is a helpful strategy,” Jones says. “There are lots of other studies, not in the context of trigger warnings, that show that avoidance can be really harmful."
This makes intuitive sense. Imagine, for instance, that you've been in a car crash and subsequently develop a debilitating fear of driving. Because driving provokes a deep sense of anxiety—and the occasional hyperventilating-on-the-side-of-the-road panic attack—you avoid it. But instead of curing your anxiety, or making you more resilient, this approach will make it harder and harder to drive. What would be more effective in the longterm would be exposure to the very thing that triggers your anxiety—so, in this hypothetical, driving. The effectiveness of exposure to anxiety-provoking events, and developing tools to deal with anxiety when it arises, has been reinforced over and over in psychological research.
Besides, while “trauma is common, PTSD is rare,” as Richard McNally, an anxiety researcher at Harvard (and Jones and Bellet’s advisor), wrote in the New York Times. Lots of people go through traumatic experiences; most of them recover without permanent symptoms. And yet, despite the rarity of PTSD and the lack of supporting evidence for the continued use of trigger warnings, much of the media and educational establishment has embraced them as though they aren’t just helpful but necessary. Jones says this is a problem.
“It’s terrible that we are at this point now where trigger warnings are extremely widely used and yet we are just now getting around to testing them,” he told me. “That's important to think about when we are coming up with some sort of new intervention or practice. The testing should come before the phenomenon spreads. I wish that had been the case with trigger warnings.”