Trigger warnings don't help — and could actually cause distress, studies suggest (2022)

'Trigger warnings are a cautionary tale, that we should help people, but we should check that we're actually helping first, right?'

Author of the article:

Tyler Dawson

Publishing date:

Aug 30, 2022August 30, 20223 minute read 102 Comments

Trigger warnings don't help — and could actually cause distress, studies suggest (1)

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A new analysis of 12 studies has found that trigger warnings, notes that warn readers or viewers that they could find content distressing, do not actually reduce negative reactions or increase avoidance of the material — and instead may lead to a “risk of emotional harm.”

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“This meta-analytic review suggests that trigger warnings … do not help people to: reduce the negative emotions felt when viewing material, avoid potentially distressing material, or improve the learning/understanding of that material,” says the paper, which was posted last week on the website OSF Preprints. “However, trigger warnings make people feel anxious prior to viewing material. Overall, results suggest that trigger warnings in their current form are not beneficial, and may instead lead to a risk of emotional harm.”

Trigger warnings don't help — and could actually cause distress, studies suggest (2)

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The pre-print study, which has yet to undergo peer review by other scholars, adds to the debate over trigger warnings, woke language and freedom of speech on campuses.

Payton Jones, a data scientist at Pluralsight with a phD in experimental psychopathology from Harvard University, was one of the authors on the paper.

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“There’s lots of arguments surrounding trigger warnings that are not addressable by science, because they’re value judgments, right?” said Jones in an interview.

“This meta-analysis is a really good step to hopefully pushing the arguments to be evidence based where they can be.”

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The warnings, which the paper notes have been subject to “fervid debate,” may be added to, for example, syllabi in a law course that discusses sexual assault cases, or an English literature class, wherein novels with retrograde language around gender or race may be present. They are, on occasion, also added to media stories that discuss topics such as self-harm, suicide or sexual violence and may include, the paper notes, descriptions of what content may be coming or what emotional reactions might be experienced in response to that content.

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(Video) Trigger Warnings: Controversies and Conclusions by Benjamin Bellet

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Proponents, the paper notes, say trigger warnings give readers or students the opportunity to prepare themselves for their own reactions to what they’re about to read, and constitute a “form of disability accommodation for psychologically vulnerable students.”

Since trigger and content warnings entered the cultural zeitgeist, a number of researchers have looked at their impact, including gauging emotional reactions of study participants to potentially triggering content, noting emotional responses after receiving a warning, but prior to reading the content, and avoidance of certain material in the presence of a trigger warning.

The paper notes it is the first “meta-analysis” of this research, meaning that it’s an analysis of prior work done on the subject. It found that of the 12 studies analyzed, 11 of them found the warnings were ineffective, while one concluded that they “introduce difficult-to-weigh trade-offs.”

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“While some authors suggested that warnings might be actively counterproductive … most manuscripts tended towards a characterization of warnings as inert,” the paper notes.

In other words, the authors conclude, trigger warnings don’t do what they set out to do.

The paper also finds that, contrary to the claims of both those who support, and critique, trigger warnings, people don’t deliberately avoid material that comes with a trigger warning. A 2021 paper analyzed found that just six per cent of study participants chose to avoid material after seeing a trigger warning.

“In studies where individuals are given a direct choice between options with and without warnings, options with warnings may garner more engagement,” the paper says.

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Victoria Bridgeland, another study author and a phD candidate at Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia, said trigger warnings can actually enhance the attractiveness of something, called the “forbidden fruit effect.”

“If you warn someone about something, it can make it more desirable,” Bridgeland said.

What they do do, however, is increase the “anticipatory affect.” In other words, those who see a trigger warning may experience negative emotions because of the warning, but not necessarily because of the warned-against content. That said, the analysis suggests this feeling — a “bracing effect” — is “apparently completely ineffective.”

(Video) Do Trigger Warnings Work? (According to Science)

Bridgeland said it can be linked to “fear of the unknown or fear of getting told something scary coming up.

“And before you see it, it’s a lot scarier than when you actually see it,” Bridgeland explained.

The research, though, notes it has some limitations, including an inability to measure the effect of trigger warnings on a person over time, or the way they may impact subgroups, such as those with post-traumatic stress disorder.

“Trigger warnings are a cautionary tale, that we should help people, but we should check that we’re actually helping first, right?” said Jones.

• Email: tdawson@postmedia.com | Twitter: tylerrdawson

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FAQs

Are trigger warnings helpful study? ›

Most of the flurry of studies that followed found that trigger warnings had no meaningful effect, but two of them found that individuals who received trigger warnings experienced more distress than those who did not. Yet another study suggested that trigger warnings may prolong the distress of negative memories.

Why is it important to give trigger warnings? ›

For those who have experienced trauma, trigger warnings help them to avoid fight-or-flight modes that occur when they are exposed to words or imagery that remind them of the trauma. Trigger warnings can also help students who are recovering from mental illnesses, suicidal tendencies and eating disorders.

Are trigger warnings helpful for PTSD? ›

It cautions you that the material may remind you of a traumatic experience. For example, the content may include a sexual assault scene or depictions of torture. Trigger warnings may be helpful for trauma survivors, especially those who have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Warnings give survivors a heads up.

What trigger warnings really mean? ›

A trigger warning is a statement made prior to sharing potentially disturbing content. That content might include graphic references to topics such as sexual abuse, self-harm, violence, eating disorders, and so on, and can take the form of an image, video clip, audio clip, or piece of text.

When did trigger warning become a thing? ›

The term trigger warning originated in the late 1990s on feminist Internet message boards, where it referred to site-sponsored cautions to readers regarding the presence of graphic depictions of rape in certain posts.

Does it hurt trigger warnings? ›

Summary: New research suggests that trigger warnings have little or no benefit in cushioning the blow of potentially disturbing content and, in some cases, may make things worse. For some, traumatic events leave deep psychological scars that can resurface many years later as renewed emotional pain or unwanted memories.

What is a trigger in mental health? ›

A trigger, sometimes referred to as a stressor, is an action or situation that can lead to an adverse emotional reaction. In the context of mental illness, referring to triggers usually means something that has brought on or worsened symptoms.

What's the difference between trigger warning and content warning? ›

Content warnings: These should be used to describe something that might upset readers and make them feel bad e.g., blood and nudity. Trigger warnings: These should be used to prevent exposing someone with past trauma, to something that might insight a physical and/pr mental reaction e.g., sexual violence.

What are the trigger warnings for it ends with us? ›

trigger warnings: domestic abuse, gun violence, mentions of suicide/depression, attempted rape on a pregnant woman.

What are the trigger warnings for a little life? ›

~~TRIGGER WARNING~~

Anyone who wishes to read this book, please know that it contains a lot of disturbing things such as child abuse, sexual abuse, toxic relationships, self-mutilation, suicide, rape, drug addiction & violence.

How do you say trigger warning? ›

When posting a picture on a social media, start your description with the warning type (“TW:” or “CW:,”) and then add keywords. Make them clear enough that people know whether they want to go on with the read or not, but not so descriptive that they might alone trigger a reaction.

What do you do when you accidentally trigger someone? ›

How To Help A Friend Who's Been Triggered
  1. Understand what triggers are in the first place. ...
  2. Don't tell them they're exaggerating or doing it for attention. ...
  3. Get them out of the situation as quickly as possible. ...
  4. Reassure them that they are safe. ...
  5. Don't treat them like they're crazy. ...
  6. Get them to breathe.
4 Jun 2015

What happens when trauma is triggered? ›

Initial reactions to trauma can include exhaustion, confusion, sadness, anxiety, agitation, numbness, dissociation, confusion, physical arousal, and blunted affect. Most responses are normal in that they affect most survivors and are socially acceptable, psychologically effective, and self-limited.

What happens when you are triggered? ›

Responses to Triggers

You may feel strong emotions such as anger, fear, anxiety, sadness, numbness, or feeling out of control. Being triggered may primarily show up in how you behave; you might isolate yourself from others, become argumentative, shut down emotionally, or become physically aggressive.

Should you avoid triggers? ›

Although usually impractical, the best way to cope with triggers is to avoid them altogether. An example of this would be to manage your environment by avoiding certain places that trigger PTSD symptoms. Unfortunately, it is not possible to avoid all possible triggers.

What's another word for trigger event? ›

What is another word for trigger?
startcause
bring to passexcite
arouseimpel
originatespur
rouseencourage
228 more rows

Can a person trigger trauma? ›

You may feel like you're living through it all over again. Triggers can include sights, sounds, smells, or thoughts that remind you of the traumatic event in some way. Some PTSD triggers are obvious, such as seeing a news report of an assault.

Does it hurt Meaning? ›

to feel pain in a part of your body, or to injure someone or cause them pain: Tell me where it hurts. My head hurts. She says that her ear hurts her.

Does it hurt HD Carlton main character? ›

Enzo Vitale. An enigmatic man that will only ever love the deep sea. Or rather the predators that inhabit it. Turns out, he's not so different than the monsters he feeds.

Why does Thor: Love and Thunder need a trigger warning? ›

*Spoilers follow – you have been warned*

If you're planning to see Thor: Love and Thunder and are sensitive to cancer/cancer treatment, it is an extremely prevalent theme and plot driver in the movie,” one viewer warned, adding: “Prepare yourself and take care of yourself if you need to.”

What are the trigger warnings for a little life? ›

~~TRIGGER WARNING~~

Anyone who wishes to read this book, please know that it contains a lot of disturbing things such as child abuse, sexual abuse, toxic relationships, self-mutilation, suicide, rape, drug addiction & violence.

What are trigger warnings in college? ›

In educational settings, trigger warnings often include a statement that warns the student of graphic references relating to sexual abuse, self-harm or violence that may cause psychological trauma, especially for students diagnosed with anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder, according to the University of Waterloo.

What are the trigger warnings for it ends with us? ›

trigger warnings: domestic abuse, gun violence, mentions of suicide/depression, attempted rape on a pregnant woman.

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