Title

The Trouble with Trigger Warnings: Evidence of Cognitive Interference

Publication Date

April 2015

Advisor(s)

Charles Sanislow

Major

Psychology

Language

English (United States)

Abstract

Many support the use of trigger warnings in conversations related to sexual violence, arguing they offer victims a mechanism by which to avoid potentially triggering stimuli; however, danger cues that alert participants to threatening material have demonstrated that trigger warnings may actually initiate a defensive response. In a sample of undergraduates (n = 20), the relationship between trigger warnings and early cognitive processing was examined using an emotional Stroop task. This was followed by a recognition task. In the emotional Stroop, threat words preceded by a trigger warning had significantly higher error rates than threat words preceded by a fixation cross. On correct trials, trigger warnings appeared to increase the interference of threat words, particularly rape-related threat words. Further, trigger warnings significantly enhanced recognition of rape-related threat words. Finally, trigger warnings seemed to have the most negative functional impact on individuals with increased vulnerability to rape-related threats, such as females and those reporting greater levels of alcohol use. Future work will seek to investigate the relationship between trigger warnings and cognitive processing in a sexually-victimized population, and clarify the relationship between trigger warnings, attention and avoidance among those for whom trigger warnings are typically directed.

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