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Do Trigger Warnings Work?

Research finds trigger warnings may not help reduce negative emotions.

Key points

  • Research finds trigger warnings don't serve their intended purposes.
  • Trigger warnings don't reduce the emotional distress of experiencing graphic content.
  • The warnings also don't lead people to avoid or opt out of graphic content.
  • Trigger warnings do lead to more anticipatory anxiety before viewing graphic content.
HTGanzo/Adobe Stock
HTGanzo/Adobe Stock

The term trigger warning was coined in the late 1990s on feminist Internet message boards, where it cautioned readers about graphic depictions of crimes, typically rape. The idea was to help emotionally prepare readers for difficult content and allow them to opt out and avoid the content altogether.

Today, trigger warnings are used in a variety of settings. They often alert people of graphic media in news stories, social media posts, and online videos, plus college professors use them to flag graphic content presented in classes. Most people accept trigger warnings as a normal part of life today. But do they work?

A growing body of research demonstrates that trigger warnings may not serve their intended purpose. Recently, researchers from Flinders University in Australia and Harvard University combined the data from 12 studies on trigger warnings to assess their effectiveness. Their meta-analysis was published last year in the journal Clinical Psychological Science.

Studies included in the analysis evaluated a warning “intended to alert participants about content that might trigger memories or emotions related to past experiences.” The studies were also required to measure the psychological or behavioral responses to those warnings.

Combining the data, the researchers found that trigger warnings had no significant effect on participants’ emotional responses toward material marked by the warning. People who saw a trigger warning before graphic content did not feel any better about the content compared with people who saw no trigger warning. In addition, the warnings did not affect participants’ comprehension of the material.

The researchers did find that trigger warnings led to more anticipatory anxiety; that is, study participants worried that they would have a negative emotional reaction to the content before watching it. Specifically, trigger warnings in academic settings were found to increase students’ anxiety about attending class.

Despite this worry, the analysis did not find participants were more likely to avoid content marked by a trigger warning. Instead, they found trigger warnings promote engagement, possibly because participants saw the content as “forbidden fruit.” In psychology, this phenomenon is known as the Pandora effect, which suggests that curiosity is more powerful than our desire to avoid difficult or upsetting stimuli.

The authors sum up the take-home message in their own words: “Existing research on content warnings, content notes, and trigger warnings suggests that they are fruitless, although they do reliably induce a period of uncomfortable anticipation,” they wrote. “Although many questions warrant further investigation, trigger warnings should not be used as a mental-health tool.”

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