Low Self-Esteem? Avoid Crime Novels With Surprise Endings

December 6, 2006

Not everyone enjoys a murder mystery with a surprise ending, new research suggests. People who have lower levels of self-esteem prefer crime and detective stories that confirm their suspicions in the end, while those with higher self-esteem enjoy a story that goes against expectations.

“Personality plays a role in whether a person wants to be confirmed or surprised when they read mysteries,” said Silvia Knobloch-Westerwick, co-author of the study and assistant professor of communication at Ohio State University.

“People with low self-esteem like to feel they knew all along who committed the crime, probably because it makes them feel smarter.”

But everyone seemed to enjoy mysteries where there were no strong hints of how the story would end, the study found.

Knobloch-Westerwick conducted the study with Caterina Keplinger of the Hanover University of Music and Drama in Germany . Their research was published in a recent issue of the journal Media Psychology.

Researchers know very little about what makes various forms of crime fiction popular or appealing to consumers, Knobloch-Westerwick said. This study is an attempt to find out more about how a classic genre of fiction appeals to different kinds of people.

The mystery and crime fiction genre draws large audiences, for example, with the “Law & Order” TV series and best-selling novels by John Grisham or Mary Higgins Clark.

The study involved 84 German college students. The students all took a variety of written personality assessments. They then read a short, one-page mystery story in German titled “Murder Because of Lust or Greed?” The story was about a businessman who was murdered, with two likely suspects: the victim's wife and his lover.

The students read one of three versions of the story. One version presented both suspects as equally likely to have committed the crime. A second version hinted that one of the suspects was more likely the killer than the other, and that suspect was later revealed to have been guilty (the confirmation ending). The third version also hinted that one suspect was more likely to be the murderer, but in the end the killer turned out to be the other woman (the surprise ending).

After reading the story, the participants rated how much they enjoyed the resolution of the story. People with low self-esteem rated the surprising ending as much less enjoyable than the confirmation ending. People with high-self-esteem reacted in the opposite way, disliking being confirmed and enjoying being surprised.

One implication from this is that the most popular mysteries would be those with a high degree of uncertainty from the beginning, which don't lead readers to expect a certain ending.

“Mysteries that thwart or confirm expectations in the end only pleased some of the mystery readers,” she said.

Knobloch-Westerwick said while certain stable personality traits, like self-esteem, influenced enjoyment of mysteries, there may also be situational factors that have an effect.

“If you have a bad day at work that threatens your self-esteem, you might enjoy a confirming mystery resolution more than you would normally,” she said.

Students in the study who scored high on a measure of susceptibility to boredom were slightly more likely to enjoy the story with high uncertainty.

Participants in the study were also tested for “need for cognition” – the tendency to enjoy thinking deeply about issues and situations in life. Those that scored higher on a scale for need for cognition enjoyed the story less than others, probably because this short story was rather brief and simple, she said. They would probably enjoy a more complex mystery plot.

Overall, Knobloch-Westerwick said mysteries probably appeal more to people who enjoy thinking more than average.

“The mystery genre is one of the more complex genres,” she said. “Mysteries have multiple suspects, and multiple possible motives, which all add complexity. It is much different than a suspense story which just has a good guy vs. a bad guy.”

Source: Ohio State University

Related Stories

Recommended for you

Thinking about germs makes people concerned about how they look

December 18, 2017
Simply thinking about potential infection seems to increase people's concerns about their own physical appearance, especially if they are chronic germ worriers, according to new research in Psychological Science. The findings ...

How much people earn is associated with how they experience happiness

December 18, 2017
People who earn more money tend to experience more positive emotions focused on themselves, while people who earn less take greater pleasure in their relationships and ability to connect with others, according to research ...

Could cognitive interventions be useful in treating depression?

December 18, 2017
A new study by experimental psychologists from the University of Bristol has examined whether cognitive bias modification (CBM) for facial interpretation, a digital health intervention that changes our perception for emotional ...

Teens who help strangers have more confidence, study finds

December 18, 2017
Tis the season for helping at a soup kitchen, caroling at a care facility or shoveling a neighbor's driveway.

After searching 12 years for bipolar disorder's cause, team concludes it has many

December 15, 2017
Nearly 6 million Americans have bipolar disorder, and most have probably wondered why. After more than a decade of studying over 1,100 of them in-depth, a University of Michigan team has an answer - or rather, seven answers.

Suicidal thoughts rapidly reduced with ketamine, finds study

December 14, 2017
Ketamine was significantly more effective than a commonly used sedative in reducing suicidal thoughts in depressed patients, according to researchers at Columbia University Medical Center (CUMC). They also found that ketamine's ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.