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Do Trigger Warnings Actually Work?

Early research finds little evidence that they prevent distress.

panitanphoto/Shutterstock
Source: panitanphoto/Shutterstock

The concept of trigger warnings—messages cautioning that upcoming material may cause distress—elicits heated debate. Originating on feminist websites as a tool to alert readers of articles that discussed sexual assault, the idea traveled to college campuses, where in some cases students have pushed professors to issue warnings for a variety of potentially sensitive or offensive topics. Around half of professors have used them, according to recent estimates . But if the goal of a trigger warning is to reduce distress for those who have suffered trauma, it’s important to scrutinize their efficacy so the best strategy can be implemented—and trigger warnings may not be the best strategy.

“Trigger warnings don’t seem to help, and they can produce temporary anxiety,” says Richard McNally, professor and director of clinical training in the Harvard University psychology department. “The take-home message is that people underestimate their resilience.”

Psychologists at the University of Waikato in New Zealand recently conducted a series of experiments with a total of about 1,400 college students and online participants. Some received a trigger warning, such as "TRIGGER WARNING: The following video may contain graphic footage of a fatal car crash. You might find this content disturbing," then read or viewed negative stories involving a car accident, domestic abuse, or murder. Afterward, the researchers assessed how distressed participants were, measuring how upset they felt, how many intrusive thoughts they had, and how much they avoided thinking about the material.

Everyone who read or viewed the material felt worse afterward, but there were no differences between those who did and did not receive trigger warnings. “We were surprised,” says Mevagh Sanson , the lead author of the study. “We figured one possibility was that they would be helpful, and the other possibility was that they would backfire. Instead, they seemed to do nothing at all.”

Trauma survivors, who would presumably benefit most from trigger warnings, were not the focus of the study. However, Sanson and her colleagues surveyed the participants and found that 89 percent had experienced at least one traumatic event (which is in line with other estimates of the general population). Therefore, the findings may be generalizable to those with trauma, McNally says. The team also analyzed whether trigger warnings helped when the trauma an individual had experienced matched the content they consumed. They still found no difference, but the small number of people they could analyze in this way make those results less conclusive, the authors acknowledge. Future research could assess trauma survivors specifically.

Other research offers mixed evidence on trigger warnings’ effects. A 2018 study by a University of Michigan team found that negative emotions were slightly stronger in an essay-reading condition that lacked trigger warnings. But they also found that participants were somewhat more likely to avoid material if they received a trigger warning mentioning the specific subject matter (domestic violence).

Another study published last month found that people who did or did not receive trigger warnings rated subsequent images equally negatively, but the waiting period before viewing the images was more difficult for those who received a warning. Further complicating questions of efficacy, triggers are often extremely specific stimuli that preceded trauma—a man standing next to a bed or even just a beam of sunlight—rather than the trauma itself, says Victoria Bridgland, the lead author of the study. “I think trigger warnings are a bit of a sticker fix. We have this mental health problem, and people go, ‘just slap a trigger warning on it and it’s fixed.’ But it’s not fixed,” Bridgeland says. “I don’t want to get rid of trigger warnings. I just want to make them work.”

As researchers continue to investigate the phenomenon, they’re considering various paths forward. Sanson thinks professors should not use trigger warnings, because they don’t seem to be beneficial and potential long-term effects haven’t been studied yet. McNally believes professors should review the syllabus and be transparent about the topics they’ll cover—without making the assumption that students will be distressed. Bridgland and her colleagues are interested in replacing the warning of potential distress with a positive directive, such as a set of coping skills.

Examining trigger warnings is important, McNally says, because they may alleviate momentary distress but prevent overall healing. Avoidance itself is a symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder, and avoiding reminders of the trauma may contribute to the persistence of the disorder. By contrast, gradually exposing people to reminders that provoke fear but are not dangerous, such as the memory of the trauma, is an effective treatment strategy, McNally says. For example, a therapist would not advise an individual with social anxiety to avoid every social interaction. Instead, they would help the person engage slowly and gradually to overcome their fear.

Therefore, McNally advises students to pay attention to the topics they want to avoid. Perhaps trigger warnings are not a solution but rather a signal to address a mental health challenge. “If somebody believes they need a trigger warning, that may be a red flag that they need to take a time out from classes to prioritize their health,” McNally says. “What colleges might be able to do is to have therapists in the community who are conversant in evidence-based treatments for post-traumatic stress disorder. That would really be the way to go.”

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