TRIGGER WARNING: The passage you are about to read contains disturbing content and may trigger an anxiety response, especially in those who have a history of trauma

No, that’s not a trigger warning for what you’re about to read but it is the trigger warning a trio of Harvard psychologists actually used to study the impact of trigger warnings on students. What they found was that the warnings might actually be doing more harm than good. Here’s a portion of the abstract:

Methods
We randomly assigned online participants to receive (n = 133) or not receive (n = 137) trigger warnings prior to reading literary passages that varied in potentially disturbing content.

Results
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.

Limitations
The sample included only non-traumatized participants; the observed effects may differ for a traumatized population.

Conclusions
Trigger warnings may inadvertently undermine some aspects of emotional resilience. Further research is needed on the generalizability of our findings, especially to collegiate populations and to those with trauma histories.

So those who got the trigger warnings believed they and others were more vulnerable and had greater anxiety. That seems like a recipe for creating more fragile students in need of a safe space. But it seems the impact was limited since those same people didn’t show a stronger anxiety response to less distressing material they saw subsequently.

Apart from whatever qualifiers need to be noted about the design of the study itself (there are some mentioned here), the limitations section above notes that people included in this study weren’t traumatized, i.e. they weren’t the people the warnings are meant to protect. So I guess the response to this from some supporters of trigger warnings will be that we’re seeing some costs but none of the benefits of such warnings.

Even if that’s true, do you want to create additional anxiety for 80% of the classroom that hasn’t been traumatized to help the 20% who have been. And that’s assuming it helps them at all which hasn’t been demonstrated yet. Maybe you would be willing to do that, but this study at least makes the whole issue more of a trade-off.