New experimental research suggests that trigger warnings do not impact students’ level of distress or their ability to learn in most cases. The findings have been published in the journal Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Psychology.
“When trigger warnings became a hot topic about five years ago, people made strong recommendations about them, but there was no research to back up policy,” said study author Guy A. Boysen, a professor of psychology at McKendree University. “It was all opinions. So, I wanted to look at their effectiveness in a classroom setting. If people are learning about sensitive subjects, do trigger warnings do anything to help or harm them?”
In three studies, participants watched an educational video lecture about sexual assault or suicide before completing a short multiple-choice test about the topic. The participants were randomly assigned into one of two conditions: a trigger warning condition and a control condition. Prior to watching the video, those in the trigger warning condition saw a message that warned the lecture could “trigger extreme distress among some people, especially survivors of trauma.”
The sample included 765 Canadian and U.S. adults recruited via Amazon Mechanical Turk and 105 undergraduate students recruited from a private university in the Midwestern United States.
The researchers found no evidence that trigger warnings influenced emotional regulation. Positive emotions tended to decrease and negative emotions tended to increase after watching the video regardless of whether there was a trigger warning. Trigger warnings also did not affect test performance. This was true both for participants with and without personal experience related to the topic.
But there was one significant difference that emerged between the trigger warning and control condition. Those who received a trigger warning prior to watching the video were more likely to agree with statements such as “People should always receive a warning before hearing about sexual assault” compared to those who received no such warning.
“For the average student, trigger warnings are basically inert,” Boysen told PsyPost. “They don’t reduce negative emotions or help learning. An effect they do have, however, is convincing people that trigger warnings are necessary. What I think is going on is that having a warning makes people think something is dangerous even if it is not. That is a good summery of the whole trigger warning controversy in fact.”
The findings are in line with a previous study, which found little evidence that trigger warnings reduced distress. But Boysen and his co-authors noted that there may be special contexts when warnings are appropriate and helpful.
“I only looked at students on average. If a student has a diagnosed mental disorder that involves automatically triggered emotional distress – think of things like phobias or PTSD – then they may benefit from knowing when their triggers are going to appear,” Boysen explained.
“For example, a student who is a veteran with strong reactions to unexpected loud noises due to PTSD might work with their college to ensure that their instructors know that loud noises in class should come with a warning. That is the same type of accommodation for a disability that has been occurred on college campuses for decades.”
While trigger warnings allow students with PTSD to avoid intrusive flashbacks when trying to learn, Boysen wrote in a recent review article that the warnings are probably not necessary for topics unrelated to clinical trauma.
“Based on my research and other studies, there is no need to have blanket requirements of trigger warnings,” he told PsyPost. “However, part of good teaching is letting students know where you are headed as a teacher. So, I support teachers giving students a heads up about difficult material – both intellectually and emotionally difficult material.”
The study, “Trigger Warning Efficacy: The Impact of Warnings on Affect, Attitudes, and Learning“, was authored by Guy A. Boysen, Raina A. Isaacs, Lori Tretter, and Sydnie Markowski.