New study shows that knowing spoilers doesn't ruin a story

Illustration for article titled New study shows that knowing spoilers doesnt ruin a story

Many people live in fear of being "spoiled" for a story by finding out the ending. But a new study by psychologists shows that people wound up liking stories better if they'd been told spoilers in advance.

UC San Diego psychology researchers Nicholas Christenfeld and Jonathan Leavitt wanted to know whether it was true that spoilers actually ruin people's enjoyment of stories. They decided to find out, by spoiling a group of 30 people who were about to read three different stories. According to a release from UC San Diego:

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. Subjects read stories as-is and with introductory paragraphs that gave away the endings, or spoilers. In almost all cases, they preferred the "spoiled" stories. 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 . . . 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.

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Above, you can see a chart showing the "hedonic measurement," or happiness levels, that people had after each kind story when it was spoiled vs. unspoiled. In every case, people were slightly happier with stories they'd read after being spoiled.

This study flies in the face of decades of internet lore and mystical practice around the presentation of spoilers. Perhaps it's time to take a scientific approach to spoilers, and stop pretending that they can destroy our enjoyment of stories?

You can read the full scientific article when it appears in Psychological Science.

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DISCUSSION

Do they mention whether or not the people in the study read frequently? What level of education are they? How old are they? They could just all be people who like different kinds of stories than what is provided by the unspoiled version. It seems like there are a lot of factors that seem like they could skew these results.

But more importantly, spoiling a story changes what type of story it is viewed as, not just the enjoyment. It may be true that a spoiled story can be just as/more enjoyable, but it still makes it a completely different kind of story.

Take the Poirot example. Unspoiled, it's a mystery story where you are following along with Poirot to try and discover who the killer is, you as the reader don't know until the end when all is revealed. It's a discovery, a story to keep you guessing. Spoiled, it makes it more like an episode of Columbo, where you always knew who the killer was in the beginning. You know who did it, and thus the reader's purpose for reading the story is to see the process in which Poirot goes through to discover and provide evidence of who the killer is, rather than discovering who the killer is.