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Harvard study finds that trigger warnings may actually harm trauma victims

‘Trigger warnings are not helpful for trauma survivors’

A new study by academics out of Harvard University has found that much-maligned “trigger warnings” are actually likely to have a negative effect on victims of trauma. The researchers claim that there is “no evidence-based reason to use them.”

Trigger warnings have become symbolic of the delicate, hypersensitive ideology that many college students adopt upon coming to campus. Students often insist upon them for fear that any moderate depiction of conflict in literature or science can be devastating to sensitive individuals; many professors have obliged them.

The study, an extension of previous research released last year, used real-life victims of trauma to gauge the effect of trigger warnings. The earlier study had used non-traumatized individuals in its study population.

The individuals in this study “were randomly assigned to either receive or not receive trigger warnings prior to reading potentially distressing passages from world literature,” after which “they provided their emotional reactions to each passage” where “self-reported anxiety was the primary dependent variable.”

The results were striking:

Trigger warnings did not reduce anxiety for this sample broadly. Trigger warnings also did not reduce anxiety among those who met a clinical cutoff for PTSD symptoms, reported a diagnosis of PTSD, or those who reported that the stimuli matched the content of their past trauma. Trigger warnings appeared to have trivially small effects on response anxiety overall. When effects did emerge, they tended towards small increases in anxiety rather than decreases

The researchers put their conclusion bluntly: “Trigger warnings were not helpful for trauma survivors” and thus “we find no evidence based reason for educators, administrators, or clinicians to use trigger warnings.”

Read the study here.

MORE: Trigger warnings have ‘little effect’ on emotional response – even for victims

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