Trigger Warnings: No, a New Study Didn’t Find That They’re Bad For You

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SNOWFLAKES! ‘Trigger warnings’ may undermine ’emotional resilience,’ Harvard study finds, or so says a headline on…well, Fine, it’s not exactly The Guardian but it’s not the only outlet trumpeting the results of a recent study from psychologists at, yes, Harvard University, and the study itself has a title no less snarky: “Trigger warning: Empirical evidence ahead.” Get it? Because snowflake SJWs are scared of science? Yeah. Let’s jump in.

Trigger warnings, or content warnings, are notices to let people know that something you’re about to show them may be harmful to them if they have experienced certain types of trauma or PTSD. A veteran returning from war may be thankful to know that someone is about to set off fireworks, just like a rape survivor may want to know if the book she’s about to read contains a detailed rape scene. People with PTSD can be triggered, in the scientific sense of the term — certain sights, sounds, and smells can trigger horrible memories, which in turn can give them a bad psychological or physical reaction.

This scientific explanation of triggers, and the need for some people to have trigger warnings, is ignored by many people in the alt-right and neo-nazi movement, who twist the word to mean “something offensive.” “Did I trigger you,” they may ask right after calling you a liberal snowflake and right before asking their mom for another order of chicken tendies. And the chances are likely the answer is “no,” because you haven’t experienced serious trauma at the hands of a man on the Internet with the intellect of a 12-year old calling you a snowflake.

The Harvard study ignores the actual purpose of trigger warnings and instead investigates the made-up alt-right definition that moves the goal posts entirely off the playing field. They recruited people online to self-report on a survey in which they had them read potentially upsetting passages from literature, and they specifically screened out anyone who had ever been diagnosed with PTSD or experienced any kind of traumatic event. They found, completely unsurprisingly, that the trigger warnings did not help these non-traumatized people.

They also claim to have found evidence that trigger warnings made life worse for these non-traumatized people. I could say that this claim is bullshit but I’ll be nice and say that it’s a real stretch. On nearly every factor, the people who received a trigger warning had exactly the same emotional response as people who did not receive it. The researchers found an extremely small but just barely statistically significant difference in two ways: people who got the trigger warning were slightly more likely to imagine that they would suffer emotionally if they ever got PTSD (which is pretty understandable and probably correct) and they were also slightly more likely to imagine that people with PTSD might be more vulnerable than people who haven’t suffered trauma, which again, is understandable and often true.

To put that another way, seeing a trigger warning was slightly more likely to remind a person that severe trauma is upsetting.

So, did the study find that trigger warnings are dangerous? No. Did it find that it increased stigma against people with PTSD? Absolutely not, though the researchers decided to pretend that thinking someone with PTSD might be emotionally vulnerable is a stigma. Yeah, it’s not. That’s like seeing someone in a wheelchair and assuming they’re more physically vulnerable. That’s just common sense. Obviously it can go too far — you might think the person in the wheelchair is completely incapable of taking care of themselves, and someone might do the same for a person with a mental trauma, but this study in no way shows that. At all.

And finally and most importantly, this study in no way shows that trigger warnings are useless for people with past trauma. Again, they purposely screened those people out.

Is it a useless study? Not necessarily. I mean, I can’t think of any reason why anyone would want to do more studies on how interventions for traumatized people affect non-traumatized people, unless you’re claiming that trigger warnings themselves can traumatize people, at which point I have to wonder who truly is the snowflake here. I also have to wonder if non-traumatized people have been traumatized for the past few decades during which we’ve included content warnings in front of all our movies and most of our best television shows: “Warning! The following episode of NYPD Blue contains graphic violence and sexual content!”

But still, if someone does build off this, I certainly hope they do a better job of dropping the undeserved snark from the title and the sprinkling of bullshit throughout the actual study.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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One Comment

  1. By the way, today’s WaPo has a look back at Technocracy, Inc. and how it relates to modern Silicon Valley.

    There were Technocracy, Inc. types all throughout the Clinton campaign as well. One of the things that really skeezed me about them.

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