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Trigger Warning: Empirical Evidence Ahead


Trigger warnings utterly counter-productive, scientists find.

  • Trigger warnings increase peoples’ perceived emotional vulnerability to trauma.
  • Trigger warnings increase peoples’ belief that trauma survivors are vulnerable.
  • Trigger warnings increase anxiety to written material perceived as harmful.


Background and objectives

Trigger warnings notify people of the distress that written, audiovisual, or other material may evoke, and were initially used to provide for the needs of those with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Since their inception, trigger warnings have become more widely applied throughout contemporary culture, sparking intense controversy in academia and beyond. Some argue that they empower vulnerable individuals by allowing them to psychologically prepare for or avoid disturbing content, whereas others argue that such warnings undermine resilience to stress and increase vulnerability to psychopathology while constraining academic freedom. The objective of our experiment was to investigate the psychological effects of issuing trigger warnings.


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.


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.


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


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.

H/T Charles Murray

Full Paper


Benjamin W.Bellet, Payton J.Jones, Richard J.McNally (2018). Trigger warning: Empirical evidence aheadJournal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry.