Harvard study finds trigger warnings increase anxiety

Grace Gottschling
Investigative Reporter

  • A study conducted by three researchers at Harvard University finds that people actually experience more anxiety and "emotional vulnerability" when given "trigger warnings" prior to reading disturbing content.
  • The authors caution that further research is needed, however, saying they plan to conduct two additional studies to see whether they can replicate their findings.
  • A recently published study by three Harvard University researchers claims that trigger warnings “increase peoples' perceived emotional vulnerability” and “increase anxiety.”

    The study, “Trigger warning: Empirical evidence ahead,” published last week in the Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, concludes that trigger warnings may not be beneficial.

    "Trigger warnings may inadvertently undermine some aspects of emotional resilience."   

    [RELATED: University scraps ‘trigger warnings’ for pro-life displays]

    “Trigger warnings notify people of the distress that written, audiovisual, or other material may evoke, and were initially used to provide for the needs of those with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD),” the study’s abstract explains. “Since their inception, trigger warnings have become more widely applied throughout contemporary culture, sparking intense controversy in academia and beyond.”

    “Some argue that [trigger warnings] empower vulnerable individuals by allowing them to psychologically prepare for or avoid disturbing content, whereas others argue that such warnings undermine resilience to stress and increase vulnerability to psychopathology while constraining academic freedom,” the abstract notes. 

    The authors note that they wanted to “investigate the psychological effects of issuing trigger warnings,” and so presented a group of “non-traumatized” people with reading materials that “varied in potentially disturbing content.” 

    Some participants were randomly assigned to receive trigger warnings prior to the reading, while others were not, and both groups were then asked to answer questions designed to evaluate their anxiety levels.

    [RELATED: University posts trigger warning outside free speech zone]

    According to the researchers, participants who were given trigger warnings prior to reading the material had a higher “perceived vulnerability to trauma,” were more likely to believe that trauma survivors are vulnerable, and experienced greater anxiety from the material.

    The researchers found that “trigger warnings may inadvertently undermine some aspects of emotional resilience,” and that “further research is needed on the generalizability of our findings, especially to collegiate populations and to those with trauma histories.”  

    However, the study’s significance has been questioned by some academics, including a postdoctoral fellow on Twitter who included the “p-values” of the study in an edited screenshot of the abstract’s “highlights” section.

    P-values represent the probability of an incident occurring and are not traditionally viewed to be significant unless they exceed 0.05. If the p-value is less, the significance of the hypothesis is deemed “null” and insignificant.

    The tweet calculates p-values of less than 0.05 for each of the study’s main conclusions, but the author pointed out later in the exchange that this does not necessarily discredit the findings, which could be substantiated with further research.

    “Effect sizes were indeed small, as we discuss in the paper,” Payton Jones, one of the study’s authors, responded on Twitter. “We are currently planning two replications: one with college students and one with individuals with trauma histories.”

    Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @Grace_Gotcha





    Grace Gottschling

    Grace Gottschling

    Investigative Reporter

    Grace Gottschling is the Investigative Reporter for Campus Reform. She is a recent graduate of The College of New Jersey, where she wrote for the university newspaper. Grace was the vice president of the pro-life club on her campus and has experience traveling across the country to engage and train others in pro-life apologetics.

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