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Think a Trigger Warning Will Make Things Better? Actually, It Won’t

For the last few years, some students have been demanding trigger warnings to help them avoid or cope with disturbing material in class. One study found that over half of U.S. professors now say they use trigger warnings in their course content. Trigger warnings have also started turning up at the office and in pop culture.

But a new study co-authored by Professor Deryn Strange (The Graduate School, CUNY, and John Jay College) found that trigger warnings are essentially useless. Six experiments involving 1,394 people concluded that respondents “reported similar levels of negative affect, intrusions, and avoidance regardless of whether they had received a trigger warning.” The results were similar whether or not the subjects had experienced or witnessed trauma in the past (such as domestic violence or a serious accident).

The study was published in Clinical Psychological Science. The lead researcher, postdoctoral research fellow Mevagh Sanson of  The University of Waikato, New Zealand, worked in Strange’s lab while on a Fulbright fellowship at John Jay. Both women are from New Zealand.

Everyone in the study was exposed to “negative material,” including violent videos. Their symptoms of distress – including intrusive thoughts and ability to concentrate on an unrelated reading after seeing the negative material — were then measured and analyzed. ”The trigger warnings didn’t affect people’s feelings about the material they were looking it and didn’t diminish their reactions in any way,”  Strain said in an interview.

The study got a lot of attention, with coverage from The New York Times and Inside Higher Ed, among others. The New York Post summarized it by saying: “Suck it up, snowflakes. Trigger warnings don’t work.”

Strange says there’s even a case to be made that the “cumulative effects of trigger warnings could be harmful. There’s other evidence in the literature in terms of post-traumatic stress disorder responses that suggests that avoidance is not a good strategy for adapting.” In other words, students who avoid material because of trigger warnings may take longer to recover from PTSD because they aren’t processing their emotions.