A new study in the journal "Clinical Psychological Science" claims that so-called "trigger warnings" — visible warnings placed on controversial material and material that might cause post-traumatic stress disorder in individuals who have experienced certain forms of trauma — have only "trivial effects" on a person's mental health and are mostly worthless.
Robby Soave at Reason Magazine reports that the study found that "[t]rigger warnings don't really leave anyone worse off ... [b]ut they don't help matters, either: Study participants who received a trigger warning were just as bothered by traumatic words and images as participants who saw the words and images without any forewarning."
That renders trigger warnings almost completely useless when used in an academic context.
Strangely enough, this is actually a more positive story for trigger warnings and their respective users. A Harvard University study published last year, which this study may have set out to contradict, found that trigger warnings actually make people "less resiliant to trauma," and in some cases may make certain reactions worse.
In some sense, the new study — a joint effort between University of Waikoto and the City University of New York — does contradict Harvard's findings, but only in that they found trigger warnings are generally neutral. No study on the subject appears to have found trigger warnings beneficial, even though many colleges and universities now make it standard practice to use trigger warnings when students are presented with material they might find disturbing (for a variety of reasons).
"Researchers showed 1,394 volunteers distressing content (in video and written form), with some of the volunteers seeing trigger warnings such as, ‘TRIGGER WARNING: The following video may contain graphic footage of a fatal car crash. You might find this content disturbing," according to Metro UK. "The researchers found that people’s responses to the content was the same, whether or not they saw a warning."
"We, like many others, were hearing new stories week upon week about trigger warnings being asked for or introduced at universities around the world," one of the study's lead researchers told Metro. "Our findings suggest that these warnings, though well intended, are not helpful."
The data also suggests, researchers report, that trigger warnings do little to help those who might have experienced real trauma: "There was little difference between groups. In other words, individuals with a personal history of trauma who received a trigger warning reported similar levels of distress as did those who did not receive a warning."
In fact, researchers said, previous studies have indicated that avoiding controversial or potentially "triggering" material might actually make PTSD symptoms worse, and that coming into contact with traumatic material in a controlled environment could help people who have experienced trauma heal — but that each individual patient would have to discuss that approach with their own qualified professional.
The researchers, at least, do not recommend making use of trigger warnings a regular, academic practice, even though they might still warn certain students who might choose to skip class rather than encounter triggering material.