Traumatized students not more likely to be triggered when reading potentially disturbing content, study finds

Modern academic literature often contains trigger warnings – statements intended to alert readers to potentially disturbing material that could exacerbate their distress related to prior trauma. However, a new experiment on US college students showed that reading passages about physical and sexual assault did not lead to much distress, regardless of trauma history, type of triggering warning, and post-disorder scores. – student trauma. The study was published in the Journal of American Academic Health.

Trigger warnings are intended to allow people who have experienced trauma to be warned in advance of things that may trigger unwanted and intrusive memories from their past. Theoretically, such warnings should be especially protective for people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in whom such materials could trigger strong emotional and physiological responses. The idea is that if these people are warned in advance, they can avoid emotional distress.

On another note, the trigger warning can generate expectations in readers that could be problematic. The researchers warned that they could encourage avoidance and prevent the processing of trauma-related materials that could actually aid recovery.

Trigger warnings have been the subject of much debate in academia, but most research so far has shown that trigger warnings have little effect – they do not lead to avoidance and do not change the how students react emotionally to materials. However, these studies have primarily focused on whether or not the trigger warnings are present, not what form they are in.

To investigate whether different forms of trigger warnings in the literature might have different effects, Matthew Kimble and his colleagues conducted a study of 123 undergraduate students taking introductory psychology courses. Students completed assessments of trauma exposure (Life Events Checklist – LEC) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD Checklist for DSM-5, PCL-5). There were no exclusion criteria for participation – all students were eligible to participate, but given the subject’s potential sensitivity, the researchers did not collect any demographic data.

Based on their Trauma Exposure Assessment (LEC), the students were categorized into three groups. Those who reported experiencing sexual or physical assault were categorized as having ‘trigger trauma’, those who reported other traumatic experiences were the ‘Other trauma’ group and those who reported no trauma were the ‘ trauma-free group. After completing the assessments, students (regardless of trauma category) were randomly assigned to read either a neutral passage or a trigger passage.

“Both passages are from Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye and the trigger passage included descriptions of physical and sexual assault. The neutral passage was of similar length but did not include any physical or sexual assault content. The 91 participants who received the potentially triggering passage were then randomly assigned to receive either a neutral trigger warning, a positive trigger warning, or a negative trigger warning,” the authors explained.

These three types of disclaimer differed in how they framed the text ahead and what they focused on – the neutral disclaimer indicated that some people might be upset by the material, the positive disclaimer emphasized that the text is a classic American frequently used in class, but that it can cause discomfort. The negative trigger warning focused on describing possible negative emotional reactions to the text.

After receiving the warning, students read the 18-page text for 30 minutes and completed an assessment of psychological distress (subjective units of distress scale). Two days later, participants were asked to complete the distress assessment again. Two weeks later, they were asked to repeat both the distress assessment and the PTSD assessment they had taken on day one (PCL-5).

“On average, the trigger passage was upsetting compared to the control passage, but distress did not differ by trauma history,” the researchers wrote. Additionally, the level of distress experienced by the students did not change based on the type of trigger warning used.

“All of the students were somewhat distressed immediately after reading the passage, an effect that wore off in all groups from day 1 to day 2 and remained weak. The passage did not appear to trigger symptoms of personal trauma in the students. Students responded the same way to the passage whether the warning was positive, negative, or neutral. Thus, trigger warnings do not appear to generate problematic (or helpful) expectation effects. This should inform instructors that, if they are inclined to give a trigger warning, the nature of the warning makes little difference,” the study authors concluded.

Although the results of the study lead to very clear conclusions, it should be noted that these results represent an average response and do not rule out the possibility that some people may react strongly to a text. Additionally, the study participants were college students and the sample size was limited, so it is unclear to what extent the findings can be generalized to other populations.

The brief report, “Student Responses to Different Trigger Warnings: A Replication and an Extension,” was authored by Matthew Kimble, Jennifer Koide, and William F. Flack.

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