Something Distressing This Way Comes: The Effects of Trigger Warnings on Avoidance Behaviors in an Analogue Trauma Task

Victoria M.E. Bridgland, Melanie K.T. Takarangi

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

9 Citations (Scopus)

Abstract

Avoidance is one of the purported benefits and harms of trigger warnings—alerts that upcoming content may contain traumatic themes. Yet, previous research has focused primarily on emotional responses. Here, we used a trauma analogue design to assess people's avoidance behavior in response to stimuli directly related to an analogue trauma event. University undergraduates (n = 199) watched a traumatic film and then viewed film image stills preceded by either a trigger warning or a neutral task instruction. Participants had the option to “cover” and avoid each image. Apart from a minor increase in avoidance when a warning appeared in the first few trials, we found that participants did not overall avoid negative stimuli prefaced with a trigger warning any more than stimuli without a warning. In fact, participants were reluctant overall to avoid distressing images; only 12.56% (n = 25) of participants used the option to cover such images when given the opportunity to do so. Furthermore, we did not find any indication that trigger warning messages help people to pause and emotionally prepare themselves to view negative content. Our results contribute to the growing body of literature demonstrating that warnings seem trivially effective in achieving their purported goals.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)414-427
Number of pages14
JournalBehavior Therapy
Volume53
Issue number3
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - May 2022

Keywords

  • avoidance
  • trauma
  • trigger warnings

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