News and Commentary

STUDY: ‘Trigger Warnings’ Are Harmful To College Students

College professors and administrators use “trigger warnings” to warn students about material that may upset them, such as depictions of rape and violence. The American public has had some version of these warnings for decades, most recognizably as movie or video game ratings.

But in recent years, students have been receiving trigger warnings on a new range of material, including classical literature such as Ovid’s “Metamorphoses” because of a passage about the Greek goddess Persephone’s rape.

A new study from Harvard University psychologists, published in the Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, found that such an overuse of trigger warnings can actually be harmful to those who are exposed to them.

Psychologists Benjamin Bellet, Payton Jones, and Richard McNally took 270 American research subjects and divided them into two groups. One group was given a “trigger warning” before reading each of 10 passages from classic literature, where five of those pieces contained explicit material such as descriptions of murder.

The “trigger warning” group proved far more likely to suggest passages containing distressful language would cause themselves and others emotional distress had they experienced trauma.

Social psychologist Craig Harper wrote at Medium that the results of this study could have far-reaching cultural effects.

“This finding could have significant implications in the context of ongoing cultural debates about the power of language in reinforcing perceived oppression,” Harper wrote. “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.”

Harper notes that the study is limited in its scale, and its use of non-students and exclusion of participants who had experienced trauma.

But he notes that the research lines up with the writing of Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, who in 2015 wrote an article in The Atlantic claiming that trigger warnings would result in mental health damage. Part of the problem Lukianoff and Haidt found was that “trigger warnings” allowed students to avoid material that may upset them, which would further their fears and prevent them from healing.

“According to the most-basic tenets of psychology, the very idea of helping people with anxiety disorders avoid the things they fear is misguided,” Lukianoff and Haidt wrote, before explaining that someone with a fear of elevators would not be told to avoid them, but rather to gradually engage with them until they were comfortable to use one. “Trigger warnings,” on the other hand, reinforce the fear and compound anxiety.

Another problem with such warnings is that they achieve the exact opposite effect from their intentions. From Harper:

To some people, trigger warnings are an essential part of the classroom. They’re seen as a way to make ‘marginalized’ students (as is the current vernacular for describing ethic, sexual, and gender minorities, those with disabilities, and those with histories of abuse) feel like they are more included in the classroom.

This is essentially “othering” people who might take offense and assuming all people of a marginalized group need to be protected from words. It’s infantilism.

This is just one, limited, study, but it’s something colleges need to consider.