M. Jackson Group Update – September 2023 – Do Trigger Warnings Work?

A collection of postings on a range of issues is available on our website (www.mjacksongroup.ca).  This month’s post is again from Ken Pope’s listserv, where he kindly provides daily summaries of current articles in the field.

Clinical Psychological Science has scheduled a study for publication in a future issue: “A Meta-Analysis of the Efficacy of Trigger Warnings, Content Warnings, and Content Notes.”

The authors are Victoria M. E. Bridgland, Payton J. Jones, and Benjamin W. Bellet.

Here’s how it opens:

A trigger warning, content warning, or content note refers to a statement intended to help individuals prepare for or avoid content. These warnings differ from other, older types of content labeling (e.g., Motion Picture Association ratings intended to provide guidance for parents regarding content appropriacy for children; Motion Picture Association, Inc., 2023) in that they aim to protect individuals whose unique experiences have left them emotionally vulnerable to specific material. Advocates argue that trigger warnings help people by emotionally preparing them to view or completely avoid content they may not want to see (Bentley, 2017; Cares et al., 2017; DeBonis, 2019George & Hovey, 2020). However, critics argue that warnings may instead exacerbate negative reactions (Filipovic, 2014Lesh, 2016Waldman, 2016) and that encouraging avoidance might be harmful rather than beneficial (Lukianoff & Haidt, 2015McNally, 2014). 

In response to continued widespread use and fervid debate about the efficacy of trigger warnings, a handful of empirical studies have emerged since 2018 that have focused on four primary lines of questioning.

First, do trigger warnings change emotional reactions in response to material? 

Second, do trigger warnings increase the avoidance of warned-of material? 

Third, do trigger warnings have any effects on anticipatory emotions before seeing material (e.g., anxiety)? 

And fourth, do trigger warnings change educational outcomes (i.e., the comprehension of warned-of material)? 

Here, we present a meta-analysis of all current empirical studies on the effects of trigger warnings, focusing on these four main lines of inquiry.

Another excerpt:

Trigger Warnings: What Do They Look Like?

Although no formal analysis has been conducted to document the various forms of trigger warnings, it is not hard to observe an abundance of different manifestations across news media, social media, educational settings, and beyond (e.g., art galleries). In addition to demarcating specific types of content (e.g., “Trigger warning: sexual assault and harassment”; University of New South Wales Law Society, 2017), trigger warnings may also include warnings about potential emotional reactions (e.g., “Warning: This article contains details that some readers may find distressing”; Marozzi & Taylor, 2022), specify which specific groups of people might be particularly affected by the content (e.g., “This article discusses sexual assault. If you are a survivor of sexual misconduct, BYU has extensive resources to help”; Allen, 2022), or specify recommendations for the best course of action to take (e.g., “If you do not wish to view these works, you may exit through the video gallery at right”). As trigger warnings have become a standard in the cultural lexicon, these accompanying messages are often tacitly assumed and hence completely omitted, and the purpose of warnings is commonly understood even when abbreviated (e.g., TW, CW). Thus, warnings can take many different forms, making it difficult to delineate a tight definition based on the actual text used within a warning. Indeed, there are many practices that function as trigger warnings without including the word “warning” itself (e.g., “content notes,” “sensitivity screens” on Instagram). Thus, our working definition of trigger warnings is predicated on the intent of the statement: any statement that intends to help individuals prepare for or avoid content likely to trigger memories or emotions relevant to past experiences.

Here’s how the Discussion opens:

Advocates of trigger warnings claim that they help people to emotionally prepare for or completely avoid distressing material (e.g., Gust, 2016). Critics argue that warnings contribute to a culture of avoidance at odds with evidence-based treatment practices or instill fear about upcoming content (e.g., Lukianoff & Haidt, 2015). 

Overall, we found that trigger warnings had no meaningful effect on response affect, avoidance, or educational outcomes (i.e., comprehension). 

However, trigger warnings reliably increased anticipatory distress before viewing material.

Here’s how the article concludes:

Existing research on content warnings, content notes, and trigger warnings suggests that they are fruitless, although they do reliably induce a period of uncomfortable anticipation. 

Although many questions warrant further investigation, trigger warnings should not be used as a mental-health tool.


Victoria Bridgland, College of Education, Psychology, and Social Work, Flinders University 

Email: victoria.bridgland@flinders.edu.au

Ken Pope

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Hector Y. Adames, Nayeli Y. Chavez-Dueñas, Melba J.T. Vasquez, & Ken Pope:

Succeeding as a Therapist: How to Create a Thriving Practice in a Changing World (APA, 2022)

Ken Pope, Melba J.T. Vasquez, Nayeli Y. Chavez-Dueñas, & Hector Y. Adames:

Ethics in Psychotherapy & Counseling: A Practical Guide, 6th Edition (Wiley, 2021)

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