Harvard study: 'No evidence' trigger warnings help, may actually hurt trauma survivors

  • Three Harvard University psychologists claimed in a study that trigger warnings not only do not help people, but actually may hurt them.
  • “We found substantial evidence that trigger warnings countertherapeutically reinforce survivors' view of their trauma as central to their identity," they said.

A July study conducted by Harvard University psychologists concludes that there is “no evidence” that trigger warnings help trauma survivors.

Conducted by Harvard psychologists Payton Jones, Benjamin Bellet, and Richard McNally, the study went so far as to suggest that trigger warnings could hurt the very individuals they are intended to help.

“We found substantial evidence that trigger warnings countertherapeutically reinforce survivors' view of their trauma as central to their identity.”   

“Most empirical studies on trigger warnings indicate that they are either functionally inert or cause small adverse side effects,” the study’s abstract states. “We found substantial evidence that trigger warnings countertherapeutically reinforce survivors' view of their trauma as central to their identity.”

The Ivy League psychologists said that “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.”

[RELATED: STUDY: White liberals’ sympathy for poor whites DECREASES after white privilege lessons, sympathy for blacks stays same]

Self-reported anxiety was used by the researchers as the main dependent variable.

“Trigger warnings are not helpful for trauma survivors,” the study concludes. “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.”

This is not the first study that has reached this kind of conclusion.

In 2018, the same psychologists did a different study that said “trigger warnings increase people’s perceived emotional vulnerability to trauma,” “trigger warnings increase people’s belief that trauma survivors are vulnerable,” and “trigger warnings increase anxiety to written material perceived as harmful.”

[RELATED: STUDY: Trust in police, law enforcement plunges among teens]

In March, researchers from the City University of New York and the University of Waikoto found that trigger warnings made no difference in how bothered study participants were by troubling images and words, Reason reported.

But trigger warnings have become increasingly popular on college campuses. A 2016 NPR survey found that half of professors have said they used trigger warnings in class and most reported incorporating them of their own accord and not upon student request or administrative requirement.

A New York University professor said trigger warnings are “imperative” for learning. In 2018, the University of New Mexico posted one outside of a free speech zone. American University pushed for trigger warnings on syllabi despite the faculty objecting to them.

[RELATED: AU student government endorses trigger warnings despite faculty objections]

Campus Reform reached out to Harvard’s Republican and Democrat student groups but did not receive a response in time for publication.

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @Bmac0507



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Ben McDonald
Ben Mcdonald | Washington Campus Correspondent

Ben McDonald is a Washington Campus Correspondent, and reports liberal bias and abuse on campus for Campus Reform. He is a junior at Gonzaga University, where he is a member of College Republicans.  

20 Articles by Ben Mcdonald