Study finds trigger warnings may not benefit those they intend to help

Study finds trigger warnings may not benefit those they intend to help

A recent study in Behavioral therapy explored the relationship between trigger warnings and behavior related to negative stimuli. The study concluded that there is no evidence to suggest that when presented with a trigger warning, people choose to avoid negative stimuli, and trigger warnings did not cause people to stopping to prepare emotionally. The findings could lead future research to examine the benefits of trigger warnings and whether there are more beneficial alternative tools to help traumatized people deal with unexpected triggers.

Trigger warnings are intended to prepare those consuming content that an upcoming topic may activate memories of past trauma and potentially cause someone to relive traumatic events. Therefore, one response to a trigger warning is to avoid the trigger content.

However, previous research on avoidance of negative stimuli and trauma has not consistently supported avoidance as a behavior beneficial to healing from trauma. Additionally, research has found that when people see a trigger warning, it does not reduce emotional distress if they continue consuming the content after the warning.

The research team sought to clarify the consequences of trigger warnings; they investigated whether trigger warnings caused people to avoid negative stimuli. Additionally, they were curious whether trigger warnings prompted individuals to pause and take time to prepare emotionally.

The 199 participants came from Flinders University, Australia. The sample was 70% white. The participants performed several tasks related to the study questions. First, they watched 8 minutes of a movie that depicted a violent sexual assault; they rated this scene based on how distressing they found it.

Next, half of the group of participants watched still images preceded by a trigger warning that read: “Warning: The image you are about to view contains disturbing content that may be distressing.” The remaining half in the control condition has just received instructions that the next images will appear on the next screen when ready.

Once an image appeared, they could click “stop viewing” to return to a blank screen. After these experiences, they completed several assessments that collected information about their traumatic experiences, coping strategies, and avoidance behaviors.

After analyzing the results, it became clear that trigger warnings did not lead to higher rates of avoidance behavior. Only 12% of the group of participants chose to cover the images. This was true regardless of anxiety levels or prior trauma related to the sexual assault. Additionally, participants did not, on average, spend more time on the trigger warning screens than in the control conditions.

Sometimes the reverse was true; people spent more time in the control condition on the instruction screen than those receiving the trigger warning. Additionally, trigger warnings did not decrease image distress, providing no evidence that trigger warning helped participants prepare for difficult images.

The research team acknowledges that trauma is complex, and one limitation of their study is research constraints. There may be other research methodologies that would achieve different results. They also found avoidance rates so low that future research may be needed.

The researchers acknowledge that the trigger warnings seem useful, but fear that they will become a “sticker fix”. They conclude that “at a more macro level, persistent beliefs about the benefits of trigger warnings could lead to a reduction in the efforts of policy makers or institutions to find effective mental health support strategies, because trigger warnings can be considered to be one of those approaches already in use”.

The study, “Something Distressing This Way Happens: The Effects of Trigger Warnings on Avoidance Behaviors in an Analog Trauma Task,” was authored by Victoria Bridgland and Melanie Takarangi.

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