PosterPDF Available

Trigger warnings affect reading comprehension in students reporting trauma histories.



Poster represented preliminary data analysis. Manuscript focuses on if the trigger warning and reported trauma history match. To be submitted for publication in the next few weeks.
Reading Score by PCL-5 Score Cutoff
Experiment Screen
Trigger warnings affect reading comprehension in
students reporting trauma histories
Madeline J. Bruce, BA, Saint Louis University Department of Clinical Psychology, St. Louis, MO, & Dawn Roberts, PhD,
Bradley University Department of Psychology, Peoria, IL
1. Boyson, G. A. (2017). Evidence-Based Answers to Questions About Trigger Warnings for Clinically-Based Distress: A Review for Teachers
2. Wilson, R. (2015). Students’ requests for trigger warnings grow more varied.
3. Carlson et al. (2005). The Trauma History Screen.
4. Weathers et al (2013). The PTSD Checklist for DSM-5 (PCL-5).
Madeline Bruce
Research Assistant: Violence and Traumatic Stress Lab at Saint Louis University
Research Gate:
PCL 5 equal or over 33 PCL 5 below 33
Reading score out of 5 points
TW no TW
Trigger warnings (TWs) are alerts before media
warning people reporting trauma histories and
subsequent stress that upcoming themes may serve
as a trauma reminder.
Some undergraduates are requesting TWs be
deployed in classes, stirring questions of disability
rights and if TWs are working as discriminative
TWs may prime students with posttraumatic stress
to be hypervigilant for threat, preventing them
from reading for comprehension.
Hypothesis: Students scoring high on the PCL-5
would perform worse than peers on a reading
comprehension test when the reading material had
a TW.
Methods and Materials
Participants (N= 113 undergraduates,
Mage(SD) = 19.2(1.2)) were asked to select a
National Public Radio article from a list of 4
similar titles about The State of Michigan vs.
Lawrence Nassar case.
Two titles had arbitrary, random TWs.
Participants were lead to the same article and
answered the same comprehension questions
regardless of selection.
Participants completed Trauma History Screen
(Carlson, 2005) and Posttraumatic Check List-5
(Weathers et al., 2013).
The comprehension test was developed for this
article by seasoned teachers.
Sex Female 79.6%
Male 20.4%
Gender Cisgender 85.8%
Did not report 8.9%
Outside binary 5.3%
Race White 75.2%
Black 8.0%
Multiple 8.0%
Asian 4.4%
Latinx 4.4%
Students who hit clinical cut off scores who picked
the TW scored significantly worse than comparison
peers who also picked TWs (p = .043).
There was no significant preference for TW-labeled
articles vs. unlabeled articles (p = .94).
TWs seem to be a cue to pay attention for trauma-
related material.
Pulling from Yerkes-Dodson law, the resulting
arousal may help those without posttraumatic stress,
but leave people with these histories so vigilant for
threat that they don’t digest the material.
This runs counter to the aims of an academic
... In addition, while skipping the movie is a measure of behavioral avoidance, this study did not measure other relevant methods of avoidance. Bruce and Roberts (2020b) found that students whose trauma history matched the trigger warning provided performed significantly worse on reading comprehension quizzes compared to those whose histories did not match the warning, which the authors suggested was reflective of cognitive avoidance of personally relevant stressors. These issues warrant further study to delineate the impact of anticipatory anxiety the trigger warnings may catalyze. ...
... Based on behavioral data, self-report, and now psychophysiological data, trigger warnings appear to create a nocebo-like effect, and these anxious reactions have various consequences. The consequences may not rise to leaving the course, but previous literature has demonstrated other deleterious effects such as poorer quiz scores (Bruce & Roberts, 2020b) and increasing trauma centrality , and given the lack of response to control warnings, it seems possible to inform people of upcoming content without unnecessary increases in stress. We echo the words of Jones et al. (2020) that if science continues to examine various contexts where trigger warnings are found to have negligible benefits in addition to anxiogenic effects, there is a reluctance to recommend their use. ...
Full-text available
Trigger warnings are defined as alerts presented before media to warn that the content may represent a trauma reminder. Their usefulness in higher education has been at the center of debate. While originally created to help individuals with posttraumatic stress symptoms decide whether or not to engage with material that could elicit, or “trigger” symptoms, trigger warnings have been implicated in perpetuating the avoidant behaviors that maintain the posttraumatic stress syndrome. Much of the literature thus far describes trigger warnings as creating a nocebo effect (fostering negative expectations), but these studies use only self-report measures. The present study aimed to build upon the nocebo hypothesis to assess psychophysiological responses (heart rate, respiration rate, skin conductance) to the phrase “trigger warning” as compared to alternative warning phrases and to examine whether PTSD symptoms or receptivity of trigger warnings influence this reactivity. Students (N = 106) were randomly assigned to see either the phrase “trigger warning” a PG-13 movie rating, or no warning before watching a movie clip. Viewing the trigger warning increased heart rate, respiration rate, and skin conductance measures more than viewing either the PG-13 or control stimuli. Moreover, posttraumatic stress symptoms and receptivity towards trigger warnings did not account for the relationship between warning exposure and reactivity. Ideas for future research and future trigger warning deployment are discussed.
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