Spoiler alert: Stories are not spoiled by 'spoilers'

August 10, 2011

Many of us go to extraordinary lengths to avoid learning the endings of stories we have yet to read or see – plugging our ears, for example, and loudly repeating "la-la-la-la," when discussion threatens to reveal the outcome. Of book and movie critics, we demand they not give away any plot twists or, at least, oblige with a clearly labeled "spoiler alert." We get angry with friends who slip up and spill a fictional secret.

But we're wrong and wasting our time, suggests a new experimental study from the University of California, San Diego. People who flip to the last page of a book before starting it have the better intuition. Spoilers don't spoil stories. Contrary to popular wisdom, they actually seem to enhance enjoyment.

Even ironic-twist and mystery stories – which you'd be forgiven for assuming absolutely depend on suspense or surprise for success – aren't spoiled by spoilers, according to a study by Nicholas Christenfeld and Jonathan Leavitt of UC San Diego's psychology department, to be published in a forthcoming issue of the journal .

Christenfeld and Leavitt ran three experiments with a total of 12 short stories. Three types of stories were studied: ironic-twist, mystery and literary. Each story – classics by the likes of John Updike, Roald Dahl, Anton Chekhov, Agatha Christie and Raymond Carver – was presented as-is (without a spoiler), with a prefatory spoiler paragraph or with that same paragraph incorporated into the story as though it were a part of it. Each version of each story was read by at least 30 subjects. Data from subjects who had read the stories previously were excluded.

Subjects significantly preferred the spoiled versions of ironic-twist stories, where, for example, it was revealed before reading that a condemned man's daring escape is all a fantasy before the noose snaps tight around his neck.

The same held true for mysteries. Knowing ahead of time that Poirot will discover that the apparent target of attempted murder is, in fact, the perpetrator not only didn't hurt enjoyment of the story but actually improved it.

Subjects liked the literary, evocative stories least overall, but still preferred the spoiled versions over the unspoiled ones.

Why? The answers go beyond the scope of the study, but one possibility is perhaps the simplest one: that plot is overrated.

"Plots are just excuses for great writing. What the plot is is (almost) irrelevant. The pleasure is in the writing," said Christenfeld, a UC San Diego professor of social psychology.

"Monet's paintings aren't really about water lilies," he said.

It's also possible that it's "easier" to read a spoiled story. Other psychological studies have shown that people have an aesthetic preference for objects that are perceptually easy to process.

"So it could be," said Leavitt, a psychology doctoral student at UC San Diego, "that once you know how it turns out, it's cognitively easier – you're more comfortable processing the information – and can focus on a deeper understanding of the story."

But the researchers are careful to note that they do not have a new recipe for writers to follow. After all, spoilers helped only when presented in advance, outside of the piece. When the researchers inserted a spoiler directly into a story, it didn't go over quite as well.

The overall findings are consistent with the experience most of us have had: A favorite tale can be re-read multiple times with undiminished pleasure. A beloved movie can be watched again and again.

"Stories are a universal element of human culture, the backbone of the billion-dollar entertainment industry, and the medium through which religion and societal values are transmitted," the researchers write. In other words, narratives are incredibly important. But their success doesn't seem to hinge on simple suspense.

Christenfeld and Leavitt conclude the paper by saying that perhaps some of our "other intuitions about suspense may be similarly wrong."

"Perhaps," they write, "birthday presents are better when wrapped in cellophane, and engagement rings are better when not concealed in chocolate mousse."

We might be also well-advised to reconsider surprise parties, Christenfeld said. Meanwhile, he and Leavitt continue to investigate what makes stories work – or not. Numerous recent scandals about fictionalized memoirs have inspired them to explore why it matters that a story be true. "Why does it matter," Christenfeld said, "whether something happened to one person in five billion or to no one? If the story is still a good story, why do we care?"

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11 comments

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Cube
1 / 5 (1) Aug 10, 2011
wrong...i hate it when i know the ending...subjective medical 'study' is subjective...
BradynStanaway
5 / 5 (2) Aug 10, 2011
Its psychology, how is it not going to be 'subjective'?

They present correlations in findings from experimental demographics.
Squirrel
not rated yet Aug 10, 2011
Hardly convincing since it concerned people recruited for an experiment. They had to read what was given them. In real life, we often need a reason to read that prioritizes it all the other competing demands of life. So we seek unknowns such as plots with endings we need to discover.
TheWalrus
not rated yet Aug 10, 2011
My brother spoiled "The Matrix" for me by telling me about the scene where Neo wakes up in the real world. I still enjoyed the movie, but I really wish it had been a surprise.
DThor
not rated yet Aug 10, 2011
Wow, thank these guys - they prompted me to sign up so I could leave 'WRONG' here. It's no spoiler that this study is bogus and pointless.
sstritt
5 / 5 (3) Aug 10, 2011
Didn't bother reading the article- title spoiled it. BTW- Bruce Willis's character was dead all along!
aroc91
not rated yet Aug 10, 2011
Soylent Green is people.
Telekinetic
5 / 5 (1) Aug 10, 2011
"Subjects significantly preferred the spoiled versions of ironic-twist stories, where, for example, it was revealed before reading that a condemned man's daring escape is all a fantasy before the noose snaps tight around his neck."
'An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge' was the name of that film they screened for us in grade school. Wouldn't you know it, when I went to the websites to confirm the name of the film, they all spoiled the surprise ending. Maybe it's the nature of easily-accessed information on the net that's reduced the importance of the sequence of a story's telling. For me, it spells doom for literature if it's true. Who wants to be told the punch line of a joke first?
abhishekbt
not rated yet Aug 11, 2011
Many of us go to extraordinary lengths to avoid learning the endings of stories we have yet to read or see plugging our ears, for example, and loudly repeating "la-la-la-la," when discussion threatens to reveal the outcome.


I strictly belong to this category and wish to remain there.
No spoilers for me please.
Cave_Man
not rated yet Aug 11, 2011
Just proves why books are better than movies, imagination is the best special effects studio.

When I hear a spoiler I'm often disappointed that the real thing doesn't live up to my imagined story but at least the real story is new and fresh.
Magnette
not rated yet Aug 11, 2011
It's exactly the same scenario with sporting events.

I'm a fan of F1 but if I have to work whilst there's a race on I will do everything in my power to avoid hearing the results so that I can enjoy the race from a recording.
A couple of times I've been accidently told the results by friends who weren't aware that I hadn't seen the race. This usually results in me not bothering to watch it as it completely removes any enjoyment and suspense.

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