Harvard Study: Trigger Warnings Increase Anxiety over ‘Distressing’ Content

Audience members listen to Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks in New York, Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2016. Clinton conceded the presidency to Donald Trump in a phone call early Wednesday morning, a stunning end to a campaign that appeared poised right up until Election Day to make her the first …
TOM CICCOTTA

A group of psychologists at Harvard University published a report last week that argues that “trigger warnings” only serve to stress out those that they are designed to protect.

“Trigger warnings” have increased dramatically in popularity on college campuses around the country. For the uninitiated, “trigger warnings” are often offered by professors and textbook writers as a warning to students that the text they are about to read includes depictions of stimuli that could upset vulnerable readers. “Trigger warnings” are most often used before depictions of violence, sexual assault, and offensive humor.

In October 2017, Breitbart News reported that Cambridge University was offering “trigger warnings” to students before they read Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus and The Comedy of Errors, which contain depictions of sexual and non-sexual violence.

Now, a group of psychologists at Harvard are arguing that “trigger warnings” only serve to exacerbate the anxiety of those that such warnings are designed to protect. In a study conducted by the researchers, participants that were exposed to “trigger warnings” experienced greater anxiety after reading distressing passages than did students who did not receive the warnings.

Participants in the trigger warning group believed themselves and people in general to be more emotionally vulnerable if they were to experience trauma. Participants receiving warnings reported greater anxiety in response to reading potentially distressing passages, but only if they believed that words can cause harm. Warnings did not affect participants’ implicit self-identification as vulnerable, or subsequent anxiety response to less distressing content.

The research was posted by Jonathan Haidt, the founder of the Heterodox Academy, a non-partisan group that argues for an increase in intellectual diversity in academia.

As many have theorized, the researchers concluded that coddling can result in the weakening of their emotional resilience. “Trigger warnings may inadvertently undermine some aspects of emotional resilience,” the researchers wrote.

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