Trigger warnings may prolong bad memories

Trauma memories can suddenly return when survivors are exposed to material that reminds them of the event—a process known as “triggering” which can be very distressing. Trigger warnings are intended to help mitigate this potential distress. However, Flinders University psychology researchers warn that trigger warnings do not lessen the blow of recalling past trauma.

Many websites promoting the use of trigger warnings – for example, Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why, warns: “The following episode contains graphic depictions of suicide and violence, which some viewers may find disturbing.”—claim that “triggers are more distressing if they come as a surprise” or similarly, that “vivid memories of trauma are more distressing if they happen without any warning.”

However, the new study published in Memory suggests that warning messages may not adequately prepare people to recall a negative experience but may instead prolong bad memories.

The study was conducted with 209 mainly female participants, ranging in age from 17-50 years old. They participated in two sessions, two weeks apart. In the first session, participants recalled a negative event and completed a series of questionnaires, including how emotionally impactful the event felt. The second session asked participants to recall the same event again and answer the same questionnaires.

Psychology PhD Candidate Victoria Bridgland, from the College of Education, Psychology and Social Work.

Psychology researchers PhD candidate Victoria Bridgland and Associate Professor Melanie Takarangi, who also measured participants’ reported coping strategies, wanted to explore if trigger warnings changed the way people recall a negative memory.

“Surprisingly, we found that participants who were warned in the first session reported a smaller decrease in the emotional impact of their negative memory, such as difficulty with sleep and frequency of other experiences, over the two weeks between sessions,” says researcher Victoria Bridgland, from the College of Education, Psychology and Social Work at Flinders.

“Our findings suggest that warning messages may prolong the negative characteristics associated with bad memories over time, rather than prepare people to recall a negative experience – which is the opposite to what these messages aim for.”

“They also do not increase the reported use of coping strategies,” she adds.

The article, ‘Danger! Negative memories ahead: the effect of warnings on reactions to and recall of negative memories’ (2021) by VME Bridgland and MKT Takarangi was published in Memory DOI: 10.1080/09658211.2021.1892147

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