“Trigger warning” is a phrase we hear a lot in daily life now, but how effective is providing a trigger warning in preventing distress? A study published in Memory suggests that trigger warnings could actually be counterproductive and prolong effects of recalling a negative memory.
Trigger warnings are warnings that material may contain sensitive or difficult information that could serve to distress people. Topics can include shootings, sexual violence, racism, classism, and more. These warnings are meant to be considerate, hoping to minimize any negative feelings people may have about what they are about to encounter. Despite the good intentions, there is a possibility that warnings could do the exact opposite and make memories seem more distressing than they are, due to the fact that expecting something negative can cause or worsen distress.
For their study, researchers Victoria M. E. Bridgland and Melanie K. T. Takarangi utilized 209 participants over two sessions. Participants were asked to recall a negative event that took place within the past two weeks. They were separated into two groups: one which were given a warning that this negative memory task would be distressing, and one which were not given a warning. In session two, participants were asked to recall the negative event again. All participants completed measures on positive and negative affect, state-trait anxiety, memory phenomenology coping skills, centrality of the negative event, and emotional impact of events.
Results showed that as predicted, the warning message had a negative anticipatory effect. Despite this, there was no evidence that the warning made the initial recall of the event any more distressing. The distress and negative effects faded over time, which is consistent with previous research, but results did show that participants who were given a warning in session one showed higher impact of the event still during session two. This suggests that the warning did, in fact, “hamper the healing nature of time” and that the warning effects were delayed.
Though this study took steps into understanding if trigger warnings can be harmful, there are some limitations to speak of. First, participants were asked to identify a negative event that happened in the past two weeks. This means researchers had no control over the topic or seriousness of the negative event, and intuitively effects would be larger if participants were recalling something particularly emotional. Additionally, many of the observed effects were small, making it difficult to know if they would replicate.
“In summary, this study is the first to examine the effects of warning messages on the recall of personal memories (rather than novel stimuli) with two important findings: first, we found that warning messages seem capable of prolonging aversive aspects of a negative event,” the researchers concluded. “Second, if we turn to what we did not find, warnings do not seem to diminish the distress associated with recalling a negative memory or increase the reported use of coping strategies. These data have important implications for renewed calls to use trigger warnings to improve mental health by adding to the growing body of evidence that trigger warnings at best may have trivial effects or at worst cause harm.”