The Trouble with Trigger Warnings: Evidence of Cognitive Interference

Publication Date

April 2015


Charles Sanislow




English (United States)


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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