Trigger warnings are ‘trivially helpful’ at reducing negative mood and intrusive thoughts, study finds

New research published in Clinical Psychological Science suggests that trigger warnings “are at best trivially helpful” — even for people with a history of trauma.

“We, like many others, were hearing new stories week upon week about trigger warnings being asked for or introduced at universities around the world. We thought it was important to figure out how effective these warnings are,” said study author Mevagh Sanson, a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Waikato.

For their study, the researchers conducted a series of six experiments with a total of 1,394 participants.

Some participants — a combination of college students and online participants — read a message about the content they were about to see, for example: “TRIGGER WARNING: The following video may contain graphic footage of a fatal car crash. You might find this content disturbing.” Others did not read a warning. All participants were then exposed to the content.

Afterward, the participants reported various symptoms of distress.

The researchers found little evidence that the trigger warnings had much of an effect on participants’ distress. Compared to those who had not viewed a trigger warning, those who had seen one judged the content to be similarly negative, felt similarly negative, and experienced similarly frequent intrusive thoughts and avoidance.

“These warnings, though well-intended, are not helpful. People in our study responded to content similarly, regardless of whether they first saw a trigger warning. That is, trigger warnings had little effect on people’s distress — even if they had a personal history of trauma,” Sanson told PsyPost.

“Our findings don’t mean trigger warnings are benign — they may still be harmful. For instance, their repeated use may encourage people to avoid negative material, and avoidance helps to maintain disorders such as PTSD. But in this study, we did not focus on such cumulative effects, or on people with specific clinical diagnoses.”

Previous research, published in the Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, has found that trigger warnings can increase people’s perceived vulnerability to trauma. For some participants in that study, trigger warnings made emotional reactions worse rather than better.

“Based on the small but growing body of evidence on the effects of trigger warnings, we do not think that trigger warnings for imminent content are a good idea,” Sanson said.

The study, “Trigger Warnings Are Trivially Helpful at Reducing Negative Affect, Intrusive Thoughts, and Avoidance“, was authored by Mevagh Sanson, Deryn Strange, and Maryanne Garry.