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Academia Says That Spoilers Actually Increase Our Enjoyment of a Story


Every once in a while, a friend will yell at me for being a spoiler-lover. This usually only happens when they feel I’ve spoiled them on something (which I try to be careful about around the friends I know care about that type of thing), but when it does there’s always something dinging in the back of my mind, which is this constant fight I’m having with myself (and the people around me) over the value of knowing where a story’s going to end up.

Well, according to a study conducted at UC San Diego, being spoiled about a plot point or a twist can actually increase your enjoyment of literature.

 

Here is a summary of the experiment:

The experiment itself was simple: Nicholas Christenfeld and Jonathan Leavitt of UC San Diego gave several dozen undergraduates 12 different short stories. The stories came in three different flavors: ironic twist stories (such as Chekhov’s “The Bet”), straight up mysteries (“A Chess Problem” by Agatha Christie) and so-called “literary stories” by writers like Updike and Carver. Some subjects read the story as is, without a spoiler. Some read the story with a spoiler carefully embedded in the actual text, as if Chekhov himself had given away the end. And some read the story with a spoiler disclaimer in the preface.

And the results:

 

According to the data collected, every single story given was more pleasurable to experience if one had been fed a spoiler. Now, even for those who avoid spoilers like the plague this shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise: Romantic comedies and action movies and other formulaic Hollywood fare are still among the highest-grossing, most popular things out there. You may know what’s probably going to happen at the end of half of the movies in theaters, but that doesn’t stop many people from going to see them.

Now, don’t get me wrong, some things should just not be spoiled; I stayed off the internet for a week before the release of the final Harry Potter book because I would not be held responsible for my actions if some wayward soul had told me what was going to happen. I had invested years at that point into my own theorizing and analysis, and I wanted to find out for myself what the final book would entail.

But with certain stories, there can be something thrilling about knowing a bit about where they’re going. For me, it’s always been far more about that old adage: “It’s about the journey, not the destination.” Even if I knew who was going to end up with whom, or who was going to die, knowing these things was always kind of enriching to a story for me. If a writer has put enough forethought into such an outcome, theoretically watching them get there is even more important than what happens when they arrive. For me it’s a good litmus test of how thoroughly a writer had thought out their story.

It’s as Wired points out: Just because you know the end doesn’t mean there aren’t surprises. While watching the third episode of the first season, I once asked my friend for the spoiler on who killed Lily on Veronica Mars. I had that information on tap for the rest of the season, but that didn’t for a second stop me from being shocked at every twist the show threw at me.

And believe you me, if I watched True Blood without a steady supply of rumors for what’s in store, I might go stir-crazy with every cliffhanger.

This is not to say my spoiler-free friends are wrong, or that I don’t run away fast from certain spoilers; I will still do my best to respect their wishes  about how they want to experience stories, and I will still be pissed if someone knows I’m in the middle of reading or watching something and just blurts out the ending. Like many things, it’s about choice.

Still, this is an interesting study, and I’m interested to hear what our readers think about issues like this. What “spoils” a story for you and what just enhances the experience?

(via Wired)

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  • http://twitter.com/acidragdoll Bel

    I feel like knowing what’s going to happen in a story – provided it’s a good story – also lets you better appreciate the build up to it.  For instance, I’m rereading the Harry Potter books now, and it’s delightful to spot all of this foreshadowing for later books in earlier chapters.  It shows me that a lot of care went into it, which I appreciate.

    This obviously doesn’t work on shows with twists for twist’s sake.

  • http://twitter.com/Ipstenu Ipstenu

    Looks like “The Bet” was cooler if you didn’t know spoilers, but only by a hair.  I like knowing spoilers.  They get me either way MORE excited, or confirm that I didn’t wanna see Titanic after all.

  • http://www.spaceunicorn.net Jayme

    Also love spoilers, but try not to spoil for others (sometimes it’s difficult, though). If there’s a book in a series that I’ve been dying to read, sometimes I will read the last page or two because I want to know what happens (or if what I think will happen will happen) early on, just because it will take me so long to get there if I just wait until I read it through. But I still totally enjoy reading it through even knowing what will happen. I agree with you. For me, it is totally the journey that is the best part.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_7G4SWUX2MCWWXLMYNN347JMIZY Frodo Baggins

    Exactly. RE-reading. What’s so fun about that is noticing things you DIDN’T notice the first time, and going, “Oooooh, now I see!” If you knew how it ended all along, you wouldn’t see how plot-relevant details sink seamlessly into the general atmosphere of the story. You’d instantly notice them because you’d know what they were hinting at. You might be able to appreciate them from a removed, critical standpoint, but you wouldn’t get the sense of immersion in the story, the identification with the characters, wondering what’s going on.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_7G4SWUX2MCWWXLMYNN347JMIZY Frodo Baggins

    “It’s about the journey, not the destination.”
    EXACTLY. And if the destination is spoiled, you don’t get the same journey of trying to figure out the mystery yourself. It doesn’t matter to me what the ending actually is, it matters to me that I don’t know it while I’m living within the experience of the story. 

  • Anonymous

    In general I don’t like spoilers much and avoid them for material that I enjoy. I do tend to read them for materials I’m on the fence about and use it to determine if I might like to read/watch it. Sometimes a surprise or twist is important to the emotion the scene is trying to evoke, other times its not relevant but the thing is I won’t know until I read it so I err on the side of caution.

    The worst spoiler for me was when someone told me the ending of Psycho. For that I will forever be pissed.

  • http://nmlop.tumblr.com nmlop

    What kinds of spoilers were used in the study, though? What kind of information were they given? Because there are different kinds of spoilers. (Um, spoiler warning — ) Like in Harry Potter, I think it’s a given that Voldemort will be defeated, just as it’s a given that there will happy coupling at the end of a romantic comedy. After reading the 6th book, it’s also probably a given that all the horcruxes will be destroyed. I would be more offended if I’d been spoiled for things like (okay real spoiler warning for realsies) Snape is definitely good and why (though I read a lot of fantheories that got very close), that Harry was definitely a horcrux, that Harry did die but got better, specifically who died, that kind of thing.

  • Anonymous

    The error bars would seem to indicate a lack of significance in the difference between means. However, the trend is interesting. I would add that movies are a lot easier to digest than books, which might have implications on the value of “spoilers”.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100002188005079 Feklar Fourtytwo

    I wonder if part of this isn’t related to the research about how a lot of pleasure in an event (like vacation) actually comes from anticipation, not the event itself. I have to admit, I’ve always found spoiler-phobics a bit overwrought.  But I find it fairly easy to suspend disbelief if a story is good, so maybe I have an advantage.

  • http://profiles.google.com/hzg.lauren Hillary Lauren

    Agreed. Lesson 101 in stats: if the error bars between treatments overlap, there’s no statistical significance to it, meaning the difference is most likely due to random chance. Besides, I hate spoilers ;-P

  • Life Lessons

    I can understand this. I often read the last page to see how things turned out. However I still think it is bad form to not warn people about spoilers.

    SPOILER ALERT

    After someone told me Darth Vader was Luke’s father – back in 1980 – I sort of gave up being pissed about spoilers. :)

  • Anonymous

    Wow, finally set up an account just to say this. 
    Umm, Lesson 101 in stats: read the actual stats of the research study. Of COURSE the results are statistically significant, otherwise the study wouldn’t claim it was (speaking as someone who’s read the actual study). That’s what stats are for…because we don’t eyeball things while doing research.

  • Anonymous

    (you’re correct about error bars of course, but blame that graph on bad news reporting of science, of course, like I said read the study)

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1519352749 Heather Lynn Knichel

    I completely agree that some kinds of spoilers make it much more interesting and a better show/book/movie/etc. I’m currently watching season 1 of Battlestar Galactica for the first time (I know, very late to THAT party) and by them letting us know early on that Boomer is a Cylon, it actually makes me MORE interested to see how she finds out/is activated (which is kinda currently happening in the episode I’m watching), as well as when Number Six appears again after Gaius has been hallucinating her for a slew of episodes.

  • http://twitter.com/mrsverdantgreen Mrs. Verdant Green

    The spoilers I hate are where you see the results for Olympics events before they are broadcast.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Clare-Harry-Duncan/1378359716 Clare Harry Duncan

    At first I was really sceptic about this, but now that I think about it, it’s probably true.
    I’m getting into Supernatural now since it’s all over my tumblr dash, but a few months ago, someone wrote about something heartbreaking that happens to Castiel. At the time, I had no idea who he was; now I’m in the 5th season, totally in love with Castiel, and dreading this supposedly horrible moment for him. So in relation to this article, spoilers can make you care for a character more, and in my case, make it hurt all the more when you reach it.

  • Asta Martin

    I don’t know if I really consider what they did in the study as “spoiling.” If they insert a line or detail into the story’s text as if the author wrote it, that’s more like forcing foreshadowing upon the reader. If they’d walked into the test room and said, “This is the story you’re reading. The old lady is really a monkey,” I think the readers would have reported different results. Being spoiled implies that you know that it’s happened, and therefore being a bit pissed that the ending was ruined, or you didn’t need to figure out the mystery for yourself. Reading foreshadowing (even if it is a spoiler) gives you the impression that you were clever enough to recognize it, and THAT’S why the plot came together so easily for you, you literary genius!

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_AOFTU2AM7WRZZFDC6SPN4XF6KQ Null

    People kept telling and retelling traditional stories for years even though they knew the endings. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/HelenOfSnupin Helen Worrall

    Usually I’m not a fan of spoilers, but I’ve always found the ancient epics interesting. The Odyssey and Iliad, which would have been sung by bards originally, were stories people grew up with and the outcome of the plots were well known. Even throughout the Odyssey, for instance, the gods make decisions on outcomes and the oracles predict for the heroes what the ending will be. My classics teacher told us the basic plot of the Odyssey before we read it, for the very reason the the greeks would have all ready known the ending. One of the discussions we had was about how the reveals would have been interesting because of how they happened. You know that Odysseus will reveal himself to his son Telemachus after he finally returns home to Ithica, but how will he do it? How do you tell a son you haven’t seen since he was a little child that your his long lost father?

    *shrug* just some thoughts.

  • Anonymous

    A metaphor:
    Scenario 1- Parents take children on road trip, stopping to savor several interesting pit stops and attractions along the way. The children do not know where they are going each day and are then surprised and delighted to end the trip in Disney World.

    Scenario 2- Parents take children on road trip to Disney World, stopping at several interesting pit stops and attractions that the children whine about, do not appreciate, and beg to skip so that they can reach the Magic Kingdom, like, NOW, Mom.

  • Anonymous

    tinyurl.com/2df4ccp

  • Allison Mages

    I think the best thing to do, time permitting, is read a story twice. The first time, you are surprised; the second time you can see the direction more clearly. This is especially true of stories that hinge on a mystery. My brother used to read Harry Potter books as quickly as possible the first time and then “read it for real” the second time.