Harvard Study: Trigger Warnings May Increase Emotional Vulnerability

July 31, 2018 Updated: August 1, 2018

Three Harvard scientists have published a study with the slightly mischievous title “Trigger warning: Empirical evidence ahead.”

The subject of trigger warnings, since they made their appearance on the academic (primarily collegiate) scene, has been vexed with controversy. The warnings were first developed to meet the needs of sufferers from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). If someone with PTSD encounters the wrong stimuli, he or she can relive the original trauma.

Some college instructors have, in recent years, taken to putting warnings on their syllabi, or at the beginnings of their lectures, warning students that content may be disturbing. Critics of the use of trigger warnings have argued that it infantilizes students. College, which is meant to be a bridge to the adult world, instead teaches students not to learn to deal with challenging topics, the critics say.

In addition, critics say trigger warnings have been used to limit freedom of speech on campus and to enforce an agenda of political correctness.

Supporters of trigger warnings say it is ethically responsible to give students a simple warning about content. Many students have psychological issues that affect their performance or have suffered sexual trauma; instructors should be mindful of these students’ legitimate needs.

In the Harvard study, a group of non-traumatized individuals were randomly given trigger warnings before reading disturbing content.

The authors found the warnings paradoxically made individuals experience themselves as more emotionally vulnerable, increased the belief that trauma survivors are vulnerable, and made them more anxious about written material that is thought to be harmful.

The authors noted that more study is needed, especially with collegiate populations and those who have previously been traumatized.

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