The Psychology of Spoilers: Do They Spoil the Story?
Common wisdom holds that when we share information about a story or plot that is important, it somehow “spoils” the story (hence the term, spoilers). Indeed, knowing the plot twists to some movies for instance, such as The Sixth Sense, make you view the whole movie in a different way.
The psychological suspense we experience in such stories is often integral to the story itself.
And yet, many times we will go back and re-read or view a movie again, even when we know how the story turns out. Our pleasure of the story and its characters seem largely undiminished — even though we know how it all turns out. (My wife, for instance, could watch Emma fifty times in a row and enjoy every showing.)
Researchers recently wanted to see if common wisdom holds true — do spoilers spoil our enjoyment of a story?
Leavitt & Christenfeld (2011) set to find out. They introduce their study reminding us about the detrimental effects of spoilers:
Spoilers give away endings before stories begin, and may thereby diminish suspense and impair enjoyment; indeed, as the term suggests, readers go to considerable lengths to avoid prematurely discovering endings.
Thus, they wanted to determine whether spoilers ruin the pleasure of reading a story through conducting three related experiments, mixing story genres to see if the type of story plays a part in the spoiler process.
Participants were 819 undergraduates from the University of California, San Diego. Ironic-twist stories, mysteries, and evocative literary stories were considered, one type in each experiment.
For each story, we created a spoiler paragraph that briefly discussed the story and revealed the outcome in a way that seemed inadvertent. These paragraphs were designed so that they could work as either independent text or the openings of the stories (as though the stories were intrinsically spoiled).
Each experiment included four stories selected from anthologies. […] The stories were by such authors as John Updike, Roald Dahl, Anton Chekhov, Agatha Christie, and Raymond Carver.
Each subject read three of these stories, one spoiled (with the spoiler paragraph presented before the story), one unspoiled (with the story presented without alteration), and one in which the spoiler paragraph was incorporated as the opening paragraph. Story, order, and condition were counterbalanced such that each story was presented with equal frequency across positions and conditions.
Each version of each story was read and rated for enjoyment by at least 30 subjects.
Contrary to common wisdom, at least in this experiment, subjects preferred the spoiled versions of the short stories over the unspoiled versions for every literary type — whether an ironic-twist story, a mystery, or a literary story.
Writers use their artistry to make stories interesting, to engage readers, and to surprise them, but we found that giving away these surprises makes readers like stories better. […]
In all these types of stories, spoilers may allow readers to organize developments, anticipate the implications of events, and resolve ambiguities that occur in the course of reading.
The researchers further theorized that perhaps spoilers help enhance our enjoyment of a story because they actually increase tension. Knowing the outcome of a story still leads to tension and anxiety finding out how the outcome arrives, or when the big reveal will happen. How will the author reveal it to us? How will the characters react?
When we’re blind to everything, we don’t have those unanswered questions in our mind. When we know some of the story, it can make the story even more interesting and engaging.
This research is in keeping with past research that demonstrates that we can reread stories with no diminution of suspense (see Carroll, 1996). Limitations of the present study are typical of this sort of research — it was conducted only on undergraduates at a single university campus. And the findings about spoilers only apply to stories that were read. It may be that movies, video or television shows are perceived and reacted to differently.
The researchers conclude by noting that, “our results suggest that people are wasting their time avoiding spoilers.”
In broad strokes, I agree. Knowing that everyone dies at the end of a Russian novel (or any American horror story) isn’t exactly going to ruin your enjoyment of learning how each one dies or how the author reveals the specific plot twists to get us to that ending.
Although we can’t necessarily apply these research results to movies, I’m going to go ahead and do so anyway. Knowing the ending of The Sixth Sense before watching it blinded the first time would have, I think, reduced my enjoyment of the movie. The twist is an unexpected shock, and its reveal is critical to appreciating the clever storyline and directorial work done throughout the entire movie.
How about you?
Do spoilers ruin the story for you? Or, knowing what you know now from this study, can you see how they might enhance your enjoyment of the story?
Leavitt, J.D. & Christenfeld, N.J.S. (2011). Story Spoilers Don’t Spoil Stories. Psychological Science. doi:10.1177/0956797611417007
Grohol, J. (2018). The Psychology of Spoilers: Do They Spoil the Story?. Psych Central. Retrieved on March 29, 2020, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/the-psychology-of-spoilers-do-they-spoil-the-story/