Can Trigger Warnings Help People Regulate Their Emotions?

Published by Izzy Gainsburg

Department of Psychology, University of Michigan

These findings are described in the article entitled Trigger warnings as an interpersonal emotion-regulation tool: Avoidance, attention, and affect depend on beliefs, recently published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology (Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 79 (2018) 252-263). This work was conducted by Izzy Gainsburg and Allison Earl from the University of Michigan.

Do warnings help people cope with distressing content? For as long as humans have been around, people have warned others of information or experiences in order to protect them. These warnings run the gamut, from warnings of unsafe food to hazardous traffic to dangerous doctors. In fact, animals (and even plants) offer warning signals to help fend off predators. Over the past few years in the United States, however, a new kind of warning has emerged and been the subject of endless debate: trigger warnings. In the coming years, our lab plans to test these hypotheses (and others) that help us understand how trigger warnings work, as well as when and for whom they are helpful or harmful (such as those with PTSD).

A trigger warning, as defined by Merriam-Webster, is “a statement cautioning that content (as in a text, video, or class) may be disturbing or upsetting.” Some trace the origins of trigger warnings to internet support groups for people with eating disorders and victims of abuse, where people would offer trigger warnings before recounting a story that could “trigger” a negative emotional reaction in a reader.

This terminology has roots in the literature on post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which has documented how certain stimuli (which vary from person to person) can trigger “PTSD episodes” — intense, negative, emotional reactions — for people with PTSD. Over time, however, trigger warnings have grown in their scope and popularity to encompass warnings offered by news media and universities to warn of a broader range of threats to a broader range of people. Although trigger warnings are similar to more common warnings found in popular media (such as movie ratings), trigger warnings are different because they specifically caution of a negative emotional experience. This has led some to ask the question: do trigger warnings actually help people cope with distressing content?

The utility of trigger warnings has primarily been debated in the context of college campuses, and specifically, whether professors should offer trigger warnings in advance of upsetting course content. Major media outlets, such as the New York Times, have continuously covered and contributed to this debate. Among the most pressing questions: Are people more likely to avoid content with a trigger warning? And do trigger warnings reduce people’s negative emotions when they do engage with distressing content?

Despite the fact that there was no empirical research on these questions, the debate raged on, and some universities even went as far as to specify contexts where trigger warnings would be mandated based on their assumed answers to these questions. Social psychologists, however, do not like to assume. We like to design experiments, whose methods and data allow us to test hypotheses that help us answer our research questions and develop our theories. And so that is what I did with trigger warnings, along with my graduate advisor and collaborator Dr. Allison Earl at the University of Michigan. Specifically, we tested whether trigger warnings cause people to avoid distressing content and whether they reduce people’s negative emotions when engaging with distressing content.

Before running our experiments, we had three clear predictions and two questions for which we had no clear predictions. First, we predicted that people would expect to feel worse when engaging with content that had been given a trigger warning (compared to content without warning). Second, we predicted that this effect — trigger warnings increasing expectations of negative emotions — would be stronger for those who believe trigger warnings to be protective (as opposed to coddling) because people who believe them to be protective also believe there is credible harm (i.e., negative emotions) to be protected from. Third, we predicted that people would avoid warned-of content more than content without warnings because people often avoid information that makes them feel negatively.

We remained agnostic, however, on whether trigger warnings would actually reduce people’s experiences of negative emotions. On the one hand, trigger warnings might help people prepare for the distressing content in ways that reduce the intensity of their negative emotions. On the other hand, the warnings could catalyze a placebo effect, causing people to expect to feel worse in ways that lead them to actually feel worse off than if they had no warning at all. We also explored whether people’s belief about warnings as protective affected the warnings’ protective value — those who believed warnings to be protective could benefit most from the warnings, for instance, if they held their beliefs due to having felt better for having had warnings in the past.

We tested these predictions in a series of three studies, now published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, in a paper titled “Trigger warnings as an interpersonal emotion-regulation tool: Avoidance, attention, and affect depend on beliefs.” Our first study was a descriptive survey looking at people’s attitudes about and experiences with trigger warnings. We found that people who believed trigger warnings to be protective were more likely to expect to feel anxious when engaging with warned-of content, and in turn, were more likely to intend on avoiding warned-of content. This study, however, did not test how people actually respond to real trigger warnings. To address that, we ran a second study where participants were given the titles of two videos about racism, one of which was randomly assigned a trigger warning. Participants chose their preferred video and reported how they expected to feel while watching each video (participants never watched the videos, however).

As we predicted, participants expected to feel worse while watching the warned-of video, with this effect being stronger among those who believed warnings to be protective. Furthermore, as we predicted, people avoided videos with warnings more than those without warnings, especially when those warnings created expectations of negative emotions.

These results addressed whether trigger warnings could increase avoidance (and for whom it does so), but the question remained: do trigger warnings reduce negative emotions in response to distressing content? To answer this, we ran a third study where participants read an essay that featured domestic violence, some of whom were given a trigger warning that accompanied the essay’s title. Participants who were given trigger warnings, compared to those given no warning, reported lower levels of negative emotions while reading the essay. The warnings worked! But there was a catch. Ironically, the warnings only reduced negative emotions among those who believed trigger warnings to be coddling; among those who believed trigger warnings to be protective, participants felt no better in warning or no warning conditions. In other words, trigger warnings were of no help among those who believed them to be the most helpful.

Taken together, these studies answer our initial research questions, but also raise new ones. We learned that, yes, trigger warnings can increase avoidance, but only if the warnings increase people’s expectations of negative emotions. And we learned that, yes, trigger warnings can lead people to feel less negative when engaging with distressing content, but that ironically, this benefit is less likely for those who believe trigger warnings to be helpful. Our future research hopes to answer the “why” questions. Why were trigger warnings effective in reducing negative emotions? And why were trigger warnings least effective in reducing negative emotions for those who believed them to be most helpful?

We have some ideas for both of these questions. On the first, perhaps trigger warnings initiate certain emotion-regulation processes (for instance, reminding yourself that it’s just a story), allowing people to feel better while engaging with the warned-of content. On the second question, perhaps people who believe trigger warnings to be protective are motivated to feel negative, as a means of justifying their belief that the trigger warning is warranted. For the time being, however, these are untested hypotheses.

In the coming years, our lab plans to test these hypotheses (and others) that help us understand how trigger warnings work, as well as when and for whom they are helpful or harmful. Until then, we do not formally endorse or oppose their use — that issue requires more research, and moreover, the negotiation of moral and philosophical differences that empirical research may be unable to resolve. What we can, say, however, is that trigger warnings demonstrate a novel way that humans and institutions can help others regulate their negative emotional experiences and exemplify yet another way that living organisms warn each other to ward off impending threats to their safety and wellbeing.

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