For years, trigger warnings have been the subject of impassioned academic debate: Do they protect people from distress or encourage fragility?
The warnings, which alert individuals to disturbing material, have been talked about, used and promoted on college campuses and elsewhere for more than a decade, but little was known about how well they work. Now, a pair of recent studies suggest that they may have little effect at all.
“Although people were distressed by the negative materials we showed them, they were no more or less distressed if they’d seen a trigger warning first,” said Mevagh Sanson of the University of Waikato in New Zealand, the lead author of one of the studies, published this month in Clinical Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.
Individually, the studies are limited, but collectively they offer early signs that the potential benefits — and drawbacks — of the warnings are, in the words of Dr. Sanson and her co-authors, trivial at best. Still, experts said, much more study is needed before grand conclusions can be drawn.
“The research is really in its infancy,” said Vaile Wright, who is the director of research and special projects at the American Psychological Association and has treated combat veterans and victims of sexual and domestic violence. “Naturally the research hasn’t really quite caught up to how I think it’s being implemented.”
In a series of experiments, Dr. Sanson and her colleagues presented hundreds of students and others recruited online with short stories or video clips, all of which featured negative themes, like child abuse, murder, a car accident or physical abuse. Some participants were presented with trigger warnings and some were not. Some also reported having experienced past trauma, like domestic abuse or witnessing a very bad accident.
In each case, the researchers asked participants about their mood before and after reading the passages or watching the clips. They also measured the distressing effects of the material in several other ways, including how it interfered with the participants’ ability to read and understand a subsequent neutral passage.
What the authors found was that trigger warnings had little effect on participants’ mood, how negatively they rated the material or their ability to later read the neutral passage.
“Taken together, our findings show that trigger warnings are at best trivially helpful,” they wrote.
That conclusion was in line with that of another study published this month, in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, published by the American Psychological Association.
For that study, researchers at Flinders University in Australia recruited 1,600 people online to look at photos that could be interpreted as positive, negative or neutral. They similarly measured mood throughout the experiment and found that while trigger warnings provoked an immediate decrease in mood, they had little other effect — a result that the authors noted was in line with the then-unpublished research conducted by Dr. Sanson and her colleagues.
While preliminary evidence suggests that trigger warnings are neither helpful nor harmful, both studies note that more research needs to be done on how such warnings specifically affect trauma survivors, the population for which they were originally intended.
Psychologists working with traumatized patients have long used the word “”trigger” to refer to sensations or experiences that remind individuals of their original trauma, but trigger warnings are commonly attributed to feminist spaces online.
Those communities began using such warnings years ago to alert readers to sensitive discussions, but it was not until the past decade that the alerts gained more widespread adoption. (For example, Slate, the online magazine, called 2013 the “year of the trigger warning.”) More recently, students on college campuses have increasingly called for their adoption in classrooms and on syllabuses.
Opponents of the idea say that trigger warnings coddle students and allow them to avoid discomforting perspectives. Proponents disagree, arguing that they can help those with a history of trauma avoid potentially disturbing material without banning it outright or brace themselves for it.
“The thought behind trigger warnings isn’t just that these states are highly unpleasant (although they certainly are),” Kate Manne, a professor of philosophy at Cornell University, wrote in The New York Times in 2015. “It’s that they temporarily render people unable to focus, regardless of their desire or determination to do so. Trigger warnings can work to prevent or counteract this.”
But triggers can come in many forms, including those that may not be predictable, Dr. Wright of the American Psychological Association said. In some cases, a smell or sensation can trigger a traumatic experience even while a depiction of a similar episode won’t.
“Sometimes it’s not even the actual trauma act itself,” she said. “Triggers can be really personalized.”
While the studies published this month suggest that trigger warnings have little effect one way or another, a study published last year in the Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry found that they may have drawbacks.
In that study, researchers at Harvard University recruited a few hundred online participants to read potentially disturbing literary passages, with some receiving a trigger warning and some not.
What they found was that those who received the warnings and strongly believed that words can cause harm reported greater anxiety after reading the distressing passage. The findings also indicated, albeit weakly, that trigger warnings boosted a stigma around trauma: People who saw the warnings were more likely to perceive themselves and others as particularly vulnerable to traumatic events.
The authors also argued that trigger warnings could be counterproductive, encouraging those who have faced trauma to avoid further exposure to it — an effective treatment — and promoting the idea that their trauma is central to who they are.
“If I’m constantly being reminded about how material in my everyday environment relates to my trauma, we may be reinforcing the centrality of that traumatic event to that person’s narrative, driving symptoms up as a result,” said Benjamin Bellet, the lead author of the study and a Ph.D. student at Harvard.