Trigger warnings are least likely to help those who value them the most

by Scott Barry Kaufman, September 1, 2018 in Blog

A new paper by Izzy Gainsburg and Allison Earl at the University of Michican dives deeper into the trigger warning phenomenon increasingly prevalent on college campuses (see the new book The Coddling of the American Mind by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt).

The researchers define trigger warnings as “statements that warn of a negative emotional response to potentially distressing subject matter.” Trigger warnings are often paved with good intentions, sometimes intended to help people with PTSD and trauma. It’s still an open empirical question, however, whether trigger warnings are in fact effective and yield positive benefits on resiliency and emotion regulation.

Across three studies, Gainsburg and Earl found that trigger warnings decreased negative emotions for the warned-of content, but also increased expectations of negative emotions to warned-of content and increased avoidance of the content. Anticipated anxiety for warned-of content was particularly strong for those who believed trigger warnings are protective (versus coddling). What’s more, those who believed trigger warnings to be protective (versus coddling) were particularly likely to expect negative emotions, which caused an increased avoidance of the warned-of content.

These findings are consistent with a small but emerging psychological literature on the negative psychological effects of trigger warnings. With that said, the researchers acknowledge that there is still room for much for research on this topic on a broader population (e.g., people with PTSD), across a larger timeframe (trigger warnings may show greater benefits over a longer stretch of time), with different methods of presentation and content, in realistic real-world settings (e.g., school), and with objective physiological methods.

Further research should also investigate why trigger warnings actually decreased the experienced negative emotions for the warned-of content, while not affecting attention-regulation strategies that we know are important for coping with uncomfortable emotions. Finally, it’s unclear why trigger warnings were least likely to help those who value them the most. 

The scientific study of trigger warnings has begun, and I hope it continues so that we can get at the best method of helping young people become resilient and grow after trauma, as well as develop into resilient thriving adults who are most prepared to learn and engage with the world.

You can read the full article here.


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