Study: Connection between students' 'self-reported cognitive distortions and their endorsement of trigger warnings'

'The association between students' self-reported cognitive distortions and their endorsement of trigger warnings was statistically explained by their safetyism-inspired beliefs,' the researchers wrote.

The researchers concluded that there may be 'tension' between universities' missions to 'foster resiliency and analytic thinking' and 'students' desires for emotional safety.'

A recent study examined the association between college students’ “self-reported prevalence of cognitive distortions and their endorsement of safetyism-inspired beliefs, the belief that words can harm, and the broad use of trigger warnings.”

Published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences, the article utilizes the definition of “safetyism” found in the book The Coddling of the American Mind, intending the term to mean a “culture that treats safety – including emotional safety – as a sacred value, which results in adherents diminished willingness to sacrifice safety for other moral or practical considerations.”

The four-person research team included three members from the University of California, Irvine, including the lead author, and one investigator from St. Edward’s University in Texas. 

For the study, 786 college students from the UC Irvine Human Subjects Lab Pool ranging in age from 18  to 48 years old responded to a voluntary online survey for course credit. 653 of the participants were female, 127 male, and 6 other/unspecified. Additionally, respondents were both ethnically and economically diverse.

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Participants responded to the following questions that measured their beliefs on intentions, emotional discomfort and violent speech based on a 7-point scale ranging from “Strongly disagree” to “Strongly agree.”

  • “If I feel offended or oppressed by the actions of another person, then that person is guilty of an act of bigotry, no matter if they intended to offend me or not.”
  • “Intentions don’t matter; only the emotional impact of those words on the listener matters”
  • “Emotional pain is just as dangerous as physical pain.”
  • “Emotional pain or discomfort is a sign that one is in danger.”
  • “People expressing offensive political views are causing violence against those they offend.”
  • “Offensive speech can be seen as an act of violence towards vulnerable groups.”

Then, participants were asked if they believe “trigger warnings should be used.” If their answer was yes, then they were asked to pick from a provided list of reasons why that should be the case.

Participants were then given two examples of distortions from The Cognitive Distortions Scale to report how often they engage in that line of thinking. The scale covers “mindreading, catastrophizing, all-or-nothing thinking, emotional reasoning, labeling, mental filtering, overgeneralization, personalization, should statements, and minimizing the positive” 

Other areas of testing include conflict-avoidance and communication, loneliness, resilience, and intellectual humility. 

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Over 90% of participants admitted that they support the use of trigger warnings, with 88% saying that they protect “vulnerable populations” and nearly 60% saying that they protect all people. 

The researchers subsequently found a positive correlation between cognitive distortions such as “catastrophizing” and “labeling,” and support for broad use of trigger warnings.

“Overall, we found that the association between students’ self-reported cognitive distortions and their endorsement of trigger warnings was statistically explained by their safetyism-inspired beliefs and their belief that words can harm,” the study concluded.

Executive director of Speech First Cherise Trump told Campus Reform that if this trend continues, young people will not be able to develop into “strong leaders.”

“Many students actively avoid debates on their campuses during this crucial time when they should be developing their intellect and exercising their critical thinking skills,” Trump said. “If college campuses continue to chill speech and prevent students from being challenged, their minds will lack the elasticity and resiliency necessary to become strong leaders.” 

The researchers discovered that those who exhibited “safetyism-inspired beliefs” were more prone to avoid conflict, favor social and economic liberalism, and be female. Additionally, respondents who held these beliefs were younger on average and scored lower on the resiliency and analytic thinking scales.

“Given that two core aims of higher education are to foster resiliency and analytic thinking, our results suggest that there may be tension between fulfilling those missions and satisfying students’ desires for emotional safety,” the researchers noted.

“More broadly, if university stakeholders aspire to develop campus cultures and evidence-based policies that better prepare students for the conflict-ridden world they inhabit, then they must be more willing to scrutinize the psychological antecedents of safetyism-inspired beliefs and the consequences of safetyism-inspired practices,” they continued.

“According with this goal, our exploratory findings lend credence to those who are skeptical of safetyism and its inspired beliefs as unmitigated goods for college students’ socioemotional development,” the study concluded.

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Trump added that she would be “very interested to learn more about the detrimental effects coddling has on our students in K-12 schools.”

“What do we think is happening with children and teenagers who are exposed to this level of overprotection and coddling for twelve straight years, and during such a crucial time for their cognitive, emotional, and psychological development?,” she continued.

Campus Reform reached out to the researcher team; this article will be updated accordingly.