So-called trigger warnings, which alert viewers and readers to potentially disturbing content, do little to reduce distress, a new study finds.
Such warnings are becoming increasingly common, especially at colleges, but there’s little research evaluating their effectiveness, according to the study authors.
“We, like many others, were hearing new stories week upon week about trigger warnings being asked for or introduced at universities around the world,” said first author Mevagh Sanson, a psychology researcher at the University of Waikato in New Zealand.
“Our findings suggest that these warnings, though well-intended, are not helpful,” Sanson said.
She and her colleagues conducted a series of experiments with nearly 1,400 college students and online volunteers.
Participants were exposed to the same content, but only some saw a message like this beforehand: “Trigger warning: The following video may contain graphic footage of a fatal car crash. You might find this content disturbing.”
Trigger warnings had little effect on participants’ distress after exposure to disturbing content, according to the researchers.
The format of the content made no difference, they found. Trigger warnings had little impact whether participants read a story or watched a video clip.
The findings were published recently in the journal Clinical Psychological Science.
The researchers also found that trigger warnings aren’t effective for people who’ve experienced traumatic events. It’s not clear, however, if that would be true for people with diagnosed conditions such as anxiety, depression or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
However, while the study results suggest that the warnings are not helpful, “that doesn’t mean trigger warnings are benign,” Sanson said in a journal news release.
“We need to consider the idea that their repeated use encourages people to avoid negative material, and we already know that avoidance helps to maintain disorders such as PTSD,” she said.
Trigger warnings might also communicate to people that they’re fragile or lead them to misinterpret ordinary emotional responses as signs of danger, Sanson added.