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Harvard study says trigger warnings don't help trauma survivors — and actually reinforce trauma as central to identity


'Because trigger warnings are consistently unhelpful, there is no evidence-based reason to use them'

Photographer: Victor J. Blue/Bloomberg via Getty Images

A trio of Harvard psychologists last year concluded that trigger warnings — used most prominently on college campuses to let students and others know if potentially painful information is about to hit their eyes and enter their ears — may hamper emotional resilience and one's ability to handle trauma.

But Payton J. Jones, Benjamin W. Bellet, and Richard J. McNally weren't through. They buckled down and decided to specifically look at actual survivors of serious trauma to see how trigger warnings affected them.

How was the new study administered?

The researchers said "451 trauma survivors were randomly assigned to either receive or not receive trigger warnings prior to reading potentially distressing passages from world literature. They provided their emotional reactions to each passage; self-reported anxiety was the primary dependent variable."

The results?

Similar to the original study, the Harvard psychologists said they "found no evidence that trigger warnings were helpful for trauma survivors, for those who self-reported a PTSD diagnosis, or for those who qualified for probable PTSD, even when survivors' trauma matched the passages' content."

The researchers added that they "found substantial evidence that trigger warnings countertherapeutically reinforce survivors' view of their trauma as central to their identity."

In the end, they said "trigger warnings are not helpful for trauma survivors. It is less clear whether trigger warnings are explicitly harmful. However, such knowledge is unnecessary to adjudicate whether to use trigger warnings — because trigger warnings are consistently unhelpful, there is no evidence-based reason to use them."

What have others said about trigger warnings — and their siblings, safe spaces?

  • Everett Piper, president of Oklahoma Wesleyan University, penned a viral, unapologetic essay in which he told his often-offended students that their school is "not a day care."
  • Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg denounced campus "safe spaces" and urged students at the University of Michigan to welcome exposure to "challenging and uncomfortable ideas" during a 2016 commencement address.
  • Liberal activist and frequent presidential candidate Ralph Nader called trigger warnings "absurd," adding that today's male students are "far too sensitive because they've never been in a draft. They've never had a sergeant say, 'Hit the ground and do 50 push-ups, and I don't care if there's mud there.'"
  • Jay Ellison, dean of students at the University of Chicago, wrote a 2017 letter to incoming freshmen saying they wouldn't be insulated from ideas or permitted to restrict the speech of other students. He did the same thing the year before, saying "we do not support so-called 'trigger warnings,' we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual 'safe spaces' where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own."

(H/T: Campus Reform)

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