Trigger warnings—those alerts provided to college students in advance of potentially disturbing material—have prompted an intense philosophical and ideological debate. But do they actually achieve their stated goal of reducing emotional distress when dealing with sensitive subjects?
New research from New Zealand comes to a firm conclusion: They do not.
"Trigger warnings are, at best, trivially helpful," writes a research team led by psychologist Mevagh Sanson of the University of Waikato. The paper finds they "have no effect, or might even work slightly in the direction of causing harm."
The study, in the journal Clinical Psychological Science, describes six experiments—two featuring university undergraduates and four whose participants were working adults recruited on Amazon's Mechanical Turk crowdsourcing website.
All the experiments were structured similarly. Participants first reported their current emotional state to create a baseline. Then they either read a story, or watched a video, about a disturbing topic such as child abuse, murder, and physical domestic abuse.
Half of them saw trigger warnings before being exposed to the disquieting material, and half did not. Examples included "TRIGGER WARNING: The following story contains violence and death" and "TRIGGER WARNING: The following video may contain graphic footage. You may find this content disturbing."
After reporting their post-exposure emotional state, and giving their specific reaction to the troubling material, participants were asked to read an unrelated article. As they did so, they were instructed to press the "x" key each time they noticed they were "experiencing an intrusive memory or thought" about the disturbing material they had just seen or read.
The results showed a clear pattern. "People who saw trigger warnings, compared to people who did not, judged material to be similarly negative, felt similarly negative, experienced similarly frequent intrusive thoughts and avoidance, and comprehended subsequent material similarly well," the researchers report.
In a final experiment, participants were asked whether they had personally experienced traumatic events similar to the ones in the material. The researchers found that, even for those who had, "the effects of trigger warnings were once again trivially small."
"These analyses suggest trigger warnings have trivial effects even among people for whom such warnings may be specifically intended," they write.
It's worth noting that the study participants did not include people with diagnosed psychological ailments such as post-traumatic stress disorder. It's possible these warnings could be helpful to that subset of the population.
But the researchers argue the broad use of trigger warnings may do more harm than good.
"College students are increasingly anxious," they write. "Widespread adoption of trigger warnings in syllabi may promote this trend, tacitly encouraging students to turn to avoidance, thereby depriving them of opportunities to learn healthier ways to manage potential distress."
That danger, and the lack of evidence for any positive effect, should trigger a rethinking of this practice. After all, if universities won't use evidence-based research to reconsider problematic policies, who will?