Is forewarned forearmed? An investigation into the emotional and behavioral effects of trigger warnings

Author: Victoria Bridgland

Bridgland, Victoria, 2021 Is forewarned forearmed? An investigation into the emotional and behavioral effects of trigger warnings, Flinders University, College of Education, Psychology and Social Work

Terms of Use: This electronic version is (or will be) made publicly available by Flinders University in accordance with its open access policy for student theses. Copyright in this thesis remains with the author. You may use this material for uses permitted under the Copyright Act 1968. If you are the owner of any included third party copyright material and/or you believe that any material has been made available without permission of the copyright owner please contact with the details.


Despite widespread use, there is a dearth of research specifically investigating the effects trigger warnings have on people’s emotional and behavioral reactions. My thesis aimed to bridge gaps left by the first wave of trigger warning research to help determine how and why these warnings may or may not change emotion and behavior.

My thesis makes a substantial contribution to our knowledge about the emotional effects of trigger warnings. First, I found that upon viewing a trigger warning, people experience an anxious anticipatory period that does not seem to reflect mental preparation to cope with negative content (Chapters 3, 4, 5, and 6). Second, using novel stimuli that are ambiguous and neutral, rather than explicitly negative, my work replicates previous evidence that trigger warnings have little subsequent effect on immediate emotional reactions towards material (Chapter 3). Indeed, overall, my thesis and the work of others unanimously suggests that trigger warnings do not mitigate distressing reactions. Rather, it is more likely that trigger warnings lead to harm and my thesis suggests three possibilities for when and how this harm is likely to occur. First, it is possible that trigger warnings have the potential to exacerbate distressing reactions when expectations match with experiences (Chapter 3). Second, the negative effects of trigger warnings may only emerge over time (Chapter 4). Third and finally, the negative effects of trigger warnings may not occur for immediate emotional reactions, but rather for other kinds of appraisals more closely linked with negative memories (Chapter 4).

Second, my thesis significantly contributes to our knowledge about the behavioral effects of trigger warning messages. Thus far, research has focused almost exclusively on how trigger warnings may or may not change emotional reactions towards material. Chapters 6 and 7 help to confirm that, despite both critics’ and advocates’ claims, trigger warnings do little to foster the avoidance of potentially upsetting material. In fact, Chapter 6 shows that people seem eager to view distressing material marked with a trigger warning (vs. a neutral message), and Chapter 7 provides evidence that vulnerable people—such as those with mental health concerns—may be the least likely to be deterred by a warning message. My work therefore provides preliminary support that trigger warnings may actually foster a “Forbidden Fruit effect” (Ringold, 2002)—where a restricted behavior becomes more desirable—and encourage morbid curiosity about distressing content (Oosterwijk, 2017). Moreover, Chapter 7 is the first empirical investigation of trigger warnings in the applied context of social media, finding that warnings do not seem effective in preventing people from consuming negative content online. These findings have critical implications for current policies that effect over 1 billion people worldwide via Instagram.

Taken together, my thesis adds to a growing body of literature showing that trigger warnings seem to be ineffective in achieving their purported goals. Further work should focus on how to develop alert systems or strategies that do achieve these commendable aims.

Keywords: warnings, trigger warnings, trauma, posttraumatic stress disorder, expectancy effects, emotion

Subject: Psychology thesis

Thesis type: Doctor of Philosophy
Completed: 2021
School: College of Education, Psychology and Social Work
Supervisor: Melanie Takarangi