UC San Diego/HBO

Surprise! Spoilers can actually enhance our enjoyment of stories, research shows

Embrace the spoilers.

DAVID NIELD
28 MAY 2016
 

If you're a fan of Game of Thrones or Star Wars, you're probably familiar with the cat-and-mouse game of having to avoid spoilers both on and off the web before you get a chance to watch. But do you really need to try so hard to avoid the dreaded spoiler?

Ongoing research from an American psychology professor tells a surprising story: knowing the ending can actually enhance your enjoyment of a story, rather than ruining the experience altogether. Seriously.

 

UC San Diego has just published a new video on Nicholas Christenfeld's research - which (warning!) has spoilers for Game of Thrones and The Usual Suspects - though his studies stretch back to 2011. 

Christenfeld's first paper on the topic asked students to read set texts and rate their satisfaction with them. Some were presented as is, whereas others featured an introduction that gave away the ending - though this wasn't labelled as a spoiler.

Each version of each story was read by at least 30 volunteers, and across the board, the readers preferred the 'spoiled' versions.

At the time, Christenfeld and his colleague, Jonathan Leavitt, suggested that knowing the plot allowed readers to focus on the other qualities of the story, or at least made the story easier to read, because it required less brain power to figure out what was going to happen. After all, you're not going to be engrossed in the story of Hamlet any less just because you know how it ends...

Christenfeld and Leavitt followed this up with a second study in 2013, published in Scientific Study of Literature. Again, reader enjoyment appeared to be enhanced, even if the volunteers didn't reach the end of the story with the (spoiled) plot twist. This suggests that knowing an outcome makes a story more satisfying to read, even before you get to the ending.

Baz Luhrmann's film Romeo + Juliet backs up the results of this research, because we all watched it, even though we knew what ultimately happens (and Shakespeare hints at it in the prologue anyway). Plus, Christenfeld points out, we get a lot of satisfaction re-watching movies when we already know the twist that's coming.

"It does seem that if you are going to read a story once, it should be spoiled," Christenfeld told Jennifer Ouellette at Gizmodo. "However, if you are going to read it many times, it is still possible that you should make one of those times unspoiled."

"The argument isn't that stories shouldn't have plot," says Christenfeld in the video above. "What [readers] really want is to have the story complete but then [have] this extra knowledge about it. There's lots of evidence that this fluent processing of information is pleasurable."

Getting a definitive verdict on this is tricky, because it's impossible for one person to read the same story for the first time twice to test two different conditions - once spoiled can never be unspoiled. But while we'll probably never be able to prove Christenfeld's point for good, we can certainly take some insights from what he found.

It could be for the average person, spoilers are a good thing, but it might just come down to your individual personality. A 2015 study of 412 volunteers found that various personality traits affect whether or not spoilers seem to enhance a story or not.

"We found that people who have a low need for cognition prefer their stories to be spoiled, because it makes the plot easier to follow," said one of the researchers involved, Judith Rosenbaum of Albany State University. "Meanwhile, people who have a high need for affect enjoy unspoiled stories more, because they desire the thrill of a surprise."

So don't use this research as an excuse to send Hodor epitaphs to your friends who haven't watched it yet, telling them it's good for them because science.

Just keep in mind that your obsession with avoiding spoilers might actually be depriving you of a really interesting and satisfying way of engaging in a story, and that's what it's all about, right?

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