“Trigger warnings” are now widely accepted as away to help people avoid harm from disturbing content. Trouble is, they just don’t work, according to new research.

Trigger warnings seem like an obvious good: They alert people that a book, video or other media will depict a fraught topic such as sexual assault, abuse or suicide.

Forewarned, consumers can skip the content or at least be emotionally prepared for it.

The problem is, trigger warnings appear to be ineffective at best — and maybe even be harmful in some cases, according to the recent analysis of a dozen studies.

The researchers found that while there was evidence that trigger warnings sometimes caused “anticipatory” anxiety, they did nothing to relieve the distress of viewing sensitive material. Nor did the warnings deter people from viewing potentially disturbing content; in fact, they sometimes drew folks in.

In sum, the studies “almost unanimously” suggest that trigger warnings do not work as intended, according to senior researcher Victoria Bridgland of Flinders University in Australia.

Why then are trigger warnings so prevalent, from college classrooms to theaters and art galleries to news articles and social media posts?

Once they caught on, they simply kept growing — likely driven by a sense that they seemed like the “right thing to do,” Bridgland said.

“This is probably because we have a culturally ingrained notion that ‘to be forewarned is to be forearmed’ — which seems to be really hard to extinguish, despite evidence to the contrary,” Bridgland said.

Guy Boysen, a professor of psychology at McKendree University, in Lebanon, Ill., made a similar point.

“This is a classic example of a ‘call to action,’ without scientific evidence,” said Boysen, who was not involved in the review.

Trigger warnings emerged in the internet’s early days, on websites and blogs dedicated to feminist issues. They were attached to posts about topics that could be distressing, often sexual assault, so that readers could avoid or mentally prepare for the content.

The word “trigger,” Boysen noted, borrows from the language of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). And trigger warnings had the good intention of helping people who wanted to avoid reminders of a personal trauma.

It sounds logical. But, he said, “the practice of using trigger warnings preceded any scientific investigation of the effects.”

And after their early use in feminist media, “people kind of glommed onto it,” Boysen said.

Trigger warnings spread into university classrooms and then into mainstream life — sometimes taking more generic terms like “content warnings” or “content notes.”

It’s only recently that researchers started to take a harder look at the effects of those warnings. The studies in Bridgland’s review date to 2018; most were done in 2020 or later.

Each tested the impact of warnings tagged onto a video or text that contained potentially distressing content. Most often the advisory was dubbed “trigger warning,” though some studies used the general term “warning.” The studies involved a mix of trauma survivors and people with no such history.

Overall, the review found, study participants who read trigger warnings typically felt a bit more anxiety before reading or viewing any potentially distressing content compared to those who were not forewarned.

But there was no evidence that warnings blunted people’s emotional reactions to distressing content.

As for whether warnings help vulnerable people avoid unwanted content, there was again no support for that: Across five studies that looked at “avoidance,” warnings typically had no effect. In one, participants were actually more likely to read articles with trigger warnings than those without.

The findings — published online recently in the journal Clinical Psychological Science — came as no surprise to Boysen. He led one of the studies and is familiar with the body of research.

“In my mind, this is settled science,” he said.

Why don’t trigger warnings work?

To Boysen, a key issue is that they’re too “general.” When people do have a history of trauma, the things that “trigger” them are specific and vary widely among individuals.

Bridgland made another point: Warnings merely tell people that distressing things loom, and not what to do about it. In theory, warnings allow people to deploy their “coping strategies,” but that’s assuming they already have those strategies.

“People can mentally prepare themselves by using emotion regulation techniques,” Bridgland said. “However, they have to be specifically instructed on how to do so.”

People could still, of course, pass on the labeled content. The problem there is that avoidance is a symptom of disorders like PTSD and phobias, Boysen said. Therapy for those conditions, in fact, aims to gradually reduce avoidance, so that people’s traumas and fears have less power.

A 2020 study in the review found that trigger warnings may do the opposite: They can increase the extent to which some people see their trauma as central to their identity.

Despite it all, Boysen does not see an end to the trigger warning in sight. On college campuses they are increasingly regarded as a way to show students that their well-being is important, he noted.

And as an educator himself, Boysen said he’d still warn students about potentially distressing classroom content.

More information

The National Center for PTSD has more on coping strategies.

SOURCES: Victoria Bridgland, PhD, lecturer, College of Education, Psychology and Social Work, Flinders University, Adelaide, Australia; Guy Boysen, PhD, professor, psychology, McKendree University, Lebanon, Ill.; Clinical Psychological Science, Aug. 18, 2023, online