Robot 6

Spoiler alert: Study finds spoilers may be a good thing

Comics fans, as a whole, despise spoilers, from the death of Captain America and the revelation of Angel as Twilight to the death of the Human Torch and the unmasking of Miles Morales as the new (Ultimate) Spider-Man. As publishers like Marvel and DC Comics turn more frequently to the mainstream press to generate publicity for major plot developments, spoilers naturally become much more common; national newspapers don’t usually hide their exclusives from the eyes of sensitive comics fans.

But after the gnashing of teeth and rending of garments subside, it turns out that spoilers may not be a bad thing. Really! A new study by the University of California, San Diego found that, “contrary to popular wisdom,” they seem to actually enhance the enjoyment of stories.

The study, which will be published in the journal Psychological Science, focused on three types of short stories — ironic-twist, mystery and literary — from such authors as John Updike, Roald Dahl and Agatha Christie. Research subjects were presented with each story in three forms: as it originally appeared, with a spoiler paragraph before the story, and with that same paragraph incorporated into the text.

As you may have guessed, the subjects preferred to spoiled versions to the unspoiled ones (more so in the case of the ironic-twist and mystery stories than in the literary ones): “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.”

Why that is, we’re told, goes beyond the scope of the study. But one researcher suggests that it’s because plot doesn’t matter that much.

“Plots are just excuses for great writing,” said Nicholas Christenfeld, a professor of social psychology at UC San Diego. “What the plot is is (almost) irrelevant. The pleasure is in the writing. Monet’s paintings aren’t really about water lilies.”

There’s also a chance that knowing the identity of the killer or her victim, or realizing a long-forgotten character will reappear to save the day, may make the story easier to process. “So it could be 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,” said Jonathan Leavitt, a psychology doctoral student.

Keep that in mind — heck, bookmark the study! — the next time you’re harangued for letting slip a plot detail.

(via The Guardian)

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42 Comments

Wait a minute…somebody shot Captain America?!?!

Talk to me in 1999 when, in the middle of watching Twin Peaks for the first time, some dopey Spin article on Fantasy Island spoiled who killed Laura Palmer for no good reason, and THEN tell me spoilers enhance enjoyment.

Serendipity…I just read this article today

http://www.avclub.com/articles/disney-executive-says-that-story-doesnt-matter-whe,60512/

A Disney exec saying story doesn’t mater.

@Marc C:
Not surprised. A majority of Disney’s success has come from a ton of material that they took from elsewhere and touched up with their own Disney magic. Sometimes more than once.

I always feel bad that kids from this generation can never experience films like “Citizen Kane”, (the original) “Planet of the Apes”, “Empire Strikes Back” or any of the other multitude of movies that’s ending came as a surprise on the first viewing and allowed the audience member to mull over what they just watched.

The same goes with the many classic episodes of “Twilight Zone”. Yes, those shows and movies can still be enjoyed, even though you’ve seen them and knows how it ends (I still love watching TZ’s “Eye of the Beholder” though I know the startling end) you can still have fun watching the work.

I don’t care what the psychological “flavor of the week” study says, NOTHING can compare to a viewer or reader’s experience when they enjoy a fictional piece for the first time, not knowing the ending.

Different people enjoy different things: when reading, I prefer the journey to the destination. I’m more interested in reading the book than not knowing the ending.

Such a non-sequitur. How does it follow from the enjoyment of spoiled stories that plot doesn’t matter? You could just as easily argue that increased enjoyment of spoiled stories comes from heightened appreciation of plot details, because the reader is now aware of how they fit together and build to the resolution.

In fact, that seems more logical. If the only thing that differed in the control reading from the experimental reading is knowledge of the plot, one must conclude just the opposite, that story is quite relevant to enjoyment. Welcome to damn lies and statistics boys and girls, where by mere chance it just so happens that science always supports the biases of the researcher.

I totally agree with you Richard

I simply don’t believe that readers don”t enjoy mystery, suspense, shock, surprise – or the pleasure of working out a mystery as the plot evolves.

Who on earth did they interview – and did they actually LIKE reading in the first place?

I think there are different pleasures to be had in embarking on a story when you don’t know where it’s going, and embarking on that same story when you do. Both sets of pleasures can be rich and satisfying.

But that doesn’t mean we should discard the first and embrace the latter, when we can have both. The collective tastes of 30 test subjects in San Diego notwithstanding.

You can tell me that THUNDERBOLTS #1 would have worked just as well with the surprise ending advertised on the cover, but I won’t believe you. Having seen reactions from people who read it knowing the reveal and not knowing — largely positive both ways, but much more intense the first way — I really, really won’t believe you.

And I don’t need to. Anyone who likes a story better spoiled can flip to the end or ask a friend who’s read it or read it a second time. It can be their choice. Keeping the spoilers intact should similarly be the reader’s choice, not the choice of someone else.

kdb

They’re two different sorts of enjoyment. There’s one kind, which is the thrill of the unknown and the unexpected. And there’s another kind, which is the thrill of understanding how everything fits together and seeing it all play out, and deeper analysis. If you already know what’s going to happen, you can still have the second kind, but you lose the first. Some people prefer the first, some the second, and some like both. It’s only common decency to avoid making the decision for someone as to which one they can have.

I don’t buy it. I enjoyed Memento, Fight Club, and the Usual Suspects more for not having the endings spoiled, and though I’ve gone back to all three of these movies (in the case of the latter two, at least a dozen times or more), none of these compared to that first viewing and that “Holy crap!” moment of being smacked in the face by a surprise I didn’t see coming.

Yes, of course there’s two different types of enjoyment.
But the big difference is that there are many who wish to enjoy the surprise of not knowing the end of a story beforehand yet there are many (most on the net these days) who seem to revel in revealing the end.

For those who “flip to the end” first, that’s no big deal, but IMO, it’s a selfish act to reveal an end to someone who wants to enjoy the fiction without knowing it. Once learned, it can never be unlearned.

I used to be a lot more in favor of no spoilers under any circumstances. Then I realized that if the majority of my enjoyment of the booke or movie is tied into some twist and that I wouldn’t have enjoyed it as much without that twist, then it probably wasn’t written very well to begin with. Surprises and twists have their place in fiction, but they can’t support a story on their own if nobody cares about the characters or situation.

I think of spoilers this way now…. You always know exactly where roller coaster is going to end when you get on, but that doesn’t stop you from enjoying the ride.

Surprise can be one of the great pleasures in entertainment.

Good movies, for example, are those where watching them for a second time, with prior knowledge of the full story, is every bit as enjoyable and rewarding as watching them the first time, without any knowledge of the story. With the very best movies (e.g. Psycho, Chinatown, Gosford Park), it’s almost like watching a completely different film, so transformative are the various revelations. Some movies (e.g. Miller’s Crossing, Citizen Kane, Don’t Look Now) are actually more enjoyable on repeat viewings.

And while both types of viewing experiences can (should?) indivdiually be enjoyable, an even higher level of enjoyment is available by contrasting and comparing them. Spoil the key information before a first viewing and not only do you lose the chance to enjoy the suspense and surprise of a first experience, but also the chance to compare that to subsequent ones.

The Matrix ruined one of the potentially great surprises of the last twenty years by just giving it away in its ads. I think most people here would join me in lamenting the fashionable policy of movie ads in recent decades to give away practically the whole plot (up to the scene of climactic confrontation three minutes before the end, which, given how 99% of Hollywood movies have predicatable endings, effectively gives away the entire plot skeleton), but market research shows that that’s what a majority of today’s moviegoers want. What a narrow, cowardly, risk-averse way of selecting one’s viewing it caters to, though.

I’m a spoiler-fanatic, but that’s just me. And it does depend on the level of spoilers. I’d rather not find out crucial plot points before seeing or reading something. Just tease enough of it to get peeps excited.

I hate reading anything in advance about most works, especially novels from, say, Chuck Palahniuk, whose novel SURVIVOR delights on several levels when you don’t know what will happen in it. I don’t even read the backs of most books anymore, instead going by the author’s track record or by non-spoiler reviews and recommendations.

@Bill K

Most movie trailers here in the Philippines are almost 4 minutes long and literally give away the start, the conflict, the climax and even the denouement if they’re feeling a little generous. Probably a culture thing, wanting to know everything we can before spending what little money we have on a movie. Maybe that’s how they want to see it, talking about spoilers.

Personally I’m okay with spoilers, and wouldn’t wince to know the ending of a movie I haven’t seen yet. But man, avoiding Avengers news like the plague.

Well, not knowing the spoiler can also work against the enjoyment. Fight Club as an example, many viewers felt they were cheated or that the premise was stupid and didn’t work. Maybe if they had known about it in advance, they’d have enjoyed how the writer worked it out to prevent you from knowing rather than be disappointed about the ending.

It reminds me of high school, whenever we’d watch a movie for history class. There’d always be idiots asking, “Why did they do that? What’s that for?” And the teacher would always go into length talking about it and spoiling things. I always wanted to yell, “Shut up and just pay attention.”

The article doesn’t mention the demographics of the subjects. Are the people casual readers or hardcover literary buffs? what about their interest in entertainment in general? My guess is that while different people will feel different about spoilers, there might be a difference for people with a passion for fiction vs people who dabble in reading/watching fiction to unwind now and again. I’m talking tendencies here; my hypothesis still allows that some people who with a grat passion for comics, books, movies, etc love spoilers. I’m just speculating on tendencies.

Also, thirty subjects may give you some sense of people in that region but hardly of people in general Maybe someone should do a follow-up study on this. Try the study in a different region and sample people of different interest levels in fiction.

You can only enjoy movies like Usual Suspects, Sixth Sense, FightClub, etc the first way ONCE. The second time, and every time after that you HAVE to enjoy them the second, spoiler-y way. Unless you have short term memory loss like that old SNL Tom Hanks sketch. ;)

Yeah, I feel sorry for all the kids who “learn” that Luke is Vaders’s son in The Empire Strikes Back AFTER see the prequels.

Big effin’ deal, I suspect they think.

I think this has to depend entirely on the story. If a surprising reveal is a big part of what makes a story memorable and stand out then having that spoiled will undoubtedly diminish the overall enjoyment of the story. However, I wonder if this study may not have been spoiled (nu pun intended), by the fact that most stories don’t rely quite so heavily on a twist-ending.

Of the many movies I’ve seen over the years, I can only think of a handful where the shock at the end is such a huge part of the overall enjoyment that having it spoiled undoubtedly would have ruined a first viewing (though one might, of course, feel compelled to see it again).

The best “shock reveal” movie I’ve ever seen was The Life of David Gale (see it if you haven’t!). For most other movies (or books), most of us have a pretty good idea of how it’s going to end and enjoy it anyway.

Yeah, I agree. If anything, I’m more concerned about having a bad ending ruin an otherwise good movie than knowing the shock reveal. At times, I’ve heard a spoiler that seems so damn dumb but when I sit down to watch it/read it, I’ll get a surprise because of how it was carried out.

I try to avoid spoilers most of the time for anything I am reading. Sometimes for stuff I am reading if I can’t get to store on Wednesday early and there something I really want to find out what happens in it. Of course sometimes not as easy to avoid spoilers going to these sites. I do look at spoilers for all crappy crossovers that I don’t buy so I can see if anything that interests me actually does happen but 9 times out of 10 lately it hasn’t.

How many comic readers actually read mainstream press?

Usually when we read a spoiler, it’s not coming from the mainstream press, it’s coming from the net who got it from mainstream press research.

I know I enjoy the ‘journey’ but sometimes I would like some discovery to.

Also, audiences enjoy sex and violence. So let’s throw as much of that is as possible too.

Honestly, I think we’re about to the point (thanks to science) where we can get rid of writers all together, and just use robots to crank out new stories. Ah, progress!

Now, let’s not dismiss this. Remember, they’re smarter than us :D

The thing that most of the anti-spoiler people here missed about the study (including Kurt Busiek) is that different types of stories were studied, and the type of story has an effect on people’s enjoyment of a spoiled story. Spoilers enhanced the enjoyment of a story when it had an ironic twist (like in an O’Henry story) or was a mystery. There was no ironic twist or mystery at the end of Thunderbolts or at the end of Empire Strikes back. Those were simple surprises (and I am assuming fall into the “narrative” group described by the researchers). When put into that context, it makes sense that knowing the ending will enhance the enjoyment of the original.

It saddens me that so few people understand how to apply scientific studies: there’s a reason that these journal articles are only solicited to academics.

“Yeah, I feel sorry for all the kids who “learn” that Luke is Vaders’s son in The Empire Strikes Back AFTER see the prequels.”

No, they learn it from TV shows, other movies, commercials, and people they know doing a “Luke, I am your father” impression. It’s kind of impossible not to know it, actually, and the fact that you state (spoil) it so casually proves it.

At least once knowing the answer to to a mystery hurt my enjoyment of the story. One season of the drama Nip/Tuck had a mystery of who the Carver, a villain introduced at the end of the previous seeason, was; while there were lots of other plots, the most important plot that season was the Carver’s identity. While I was waiting for the DVD to come out, the entertainment news site Zap2it, on a headline to a story (not just in the story itself), revealed which actor played the Carver and even showed a photo of the actor’s face, thus making sure that no one who saw that headline would fail to know the answer to the mystery, even if they didn’t click the link to read the article. I found when i was watching that season, it seemed obvcious who the Carver was, *but* I can’t say for certain if it was my advance knowledge of the killer’s identity that made it seem so obvious. I had been looking forward to trying to solve that mystery from the teasers in the previous season, and It was so frustrating to watch the season not knowing if I would indeed have solved the mystery if I hadn’t already known the villain’s identity,

Everyone can only speak for one’s self in this matter. You can’t tell other people there is right or wrong way of enjoying a story.

Speaking for myself, I vastly prefer to be ignorant of any spoilers. There are different dimensions to enjoying a story: there is a more immediately emotional dimension of living inside the story and wanting to know what happens next, and the more intellectual dimension of enjoying the story’s structure, the author’s style.

With unspoiled stories, I find I can enjoy both dimensions at once. With spoiled ones, usually only the intellectual dimension remains in its totality, the emotional one is always diminished. And you can always return to the story a second time to more fully enjoy the structure, the pacing, the style, the symbolism. But you can only get the totality of the emotional dimension once.

For me it comes down to one thing for all those involved in the creation of a good comic –

Do you want your fans to learn about your clever plot twists, major changes, deaths etc whilst actually reading your comic

or

do you want them to find out via a non-affiliated website, newspaper, social network site?

I would hope most creatives would go for the first option, because the latter would then mean why bother reading your crap?

I will occasionally look at spoilers, or at least plot points on films, but the whole recent Hellboy spoiler was idiots wanting to ruin an important event in the HB story. I read the comic for that stuff, not the websites etc.

“Who on earth did they interview – and did they actually LIKE reading in the first place?”

Considering that they were college kids who were completely unfamiliar with “Lamb to the Slaughter” and “An Occurence at Owl Creek”, I would have to conclude “definitely not”.

Also, the study also showed that, if the spoilers were just told to the people, they HATED it. It was only by lying to the people and re-writing the stories so that the spoilers were presented up front that the people just-barely preferred the majority of the stories spoiled. Which proves the exact opposite of how most people are presenting this story.

“However, I wonder if this study may not have been spoiled (nu pun intended), by the fact that most stories don’t rely quite so heavily on a twist-ending.”

They deliberately picked four stories with a twist ending, four mysteries, and four “literary” stories. Did you not read the linked article which describes the study?

“Those were simple surprises (and I am assuming fall into the “narrative” group described by the researchers)… It saddens me that so few people understand how to apply scientific studies: there’s a reason that these journal articles are only solicited to academics.”

That second sentence is pretty ironic, given the obvious fallacy of the first one.

If the end of ‘Occurence at Owl Creek’ is ironic, then the ending of ‘Thunderbolts’ is as well. (I don’t think “ironic” is the right word in that case, but it’s what the study is using.)

Spoiler alert: this study is patent bollocks. A lot of people don’t care much for surprises, what a revelation. But there’s no account for the stories covered.; did any of them feature surprising twists? How deeply did the audience read them?

At the end of the day, a spoiled story may feel “safer” for the audience to digest but that defies the purpose of the artform – to instill feeling inside the audience (and often surprise is one of them). Personally if I know what’s going to happen then I’m less inclined to read it at all, because I know I’m not going to get the intended effect out of it any more.

Thanks for spoiling Poirot for me!

I don’t get it. All these professionals in psychology, and not one among them can realise that generalising when it comes to human nature is in most cases wrong by default? As another poster previously mentioned: different people like different things.

Personally I like not knowing the ending. I have a habit of reading a story at a relaxed for me pace anyway, to admire all the little and grand elements of the story.

Remember when you went in to see The Matrix and didn’t know what it was about, except the trailer looked real cool?

Remember when Neo took the red pill and went down the rabbit hole… and what happened next turned the whole movie up to that point on its entire head? Remember going “WHAT THE F…!!!”?

For me I don’t think I’d have been punched between the eye right back into last Friday if I’d known what happened next beforehand. If I had a gun trained on my temple and was asked to choose between spoiler or no-spoiler, it’ll be no-spoiler every time.

Stupid question, quite possibly, but if two-thirds of the study data was derived from subjects responding to stories WITH spoilers (three versions of each story, two with spoilers and one without, were read by roughly equal numbers of subjects) doesn’t that mean the data is skewed toward stories that are spoiled? It seems to me for results to be valid then an equal number of spoiled and unspoiled stories should have been read.

It seems to me self evident that preferences related to these sorts of things are generational. The demographics of the subject population is relevant to making sense of the results. Is it fair to assume that, because this was a university study, a substantial section of the subject population was comprised of students? I’d love to see if this study breaks out responses by age groups and other categories.

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