College professors and administrators use “trigger warnings” to warn students about material that may upset them, such as depictions of rape and violence. The American public has had some version of these warnings for decades, most recognizably as movie or video game ratings.
But in recent years, students have been receiving trigger warnings on a new range of material, including classical literature such as Ovid’s “Metamorphoses” because of a passage about the Greek goddess Persephone’s rape.
A new study from Harvard University psychologists, published in the Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, found that such an overuse of trigger warnings can actually be harmful to those who are exposed to them.
Psychologists Benjamin Bellet, Payton Jones, and Richard McNally took 270 American research subjects and divided them into two groups. One group was given a “trigger warning” before reading each of 10 passages from classic literature, where five of those pieces contained explicit material such as descriptions of murder.
The “trigger warning” group proved far more likely to suggest passages containing distressful language would cause themselves and others emotional distress had they experienced trauma.
Social psychologist Craig Harper wrote at Medium that the results of this study could have far-reaching cultural effects.