Spoilers Don't Spoil Anything

Friday, October 07, 2011


A recent study from the University of California, San Diego says that, despite what we might expect, spoilers don't actually spoil our enjoyment of a story—at least not in books.  In fact, knowing the ending might even make us enjoy stories more.  Brooke spoke to Jonah Lehrer of Wired, who wrote about the study.



William Tyler - Tears and Saints

Comments [18]

Lauren from Brooklyn

I think the greatest interest of this conversation is not the pleasure created by the spoiler (headlines, yes, and movie trailers) but comes of course from the artist, not the scientists: Hitchcock's distinction between suspense and surprise.

(Remember that Freud said "the poets were there first.")

So tell me again: why is a study is needed to demonstrate a phenomenon that is both painfully self-evident and already well understood and explained by the humanities? It has been understood by linguists for a long time that communication through language depends upon redundancy (consider, in addition to movie trailers and Jonah's example of the headline, the pleasures of rhyme).

But also consider the popularity of TV generally (as a remediation of 19th c. serial publication) and especially of the "procedural" genre, which is a function precisely of reexperiencing a known outcome.

This was something Edgar Poe realized when he wrote "The Purloined Letter" (the protagonist of which, being the model for Sherlock Holmes, is in fact the model for so many procedurals' detectives). In that tale, the crime and its perpetrator are known from the outset; the pleasure is in the orchestration of narration. In other words, the anticipation is less in the content of the tale (there is nothing new under the sun) and more in the telling of it. Even when someone else "spoils" the ending, she can never spoil how the tale gets there; and even if someone recounts how the tale gets there, the recounting is never precisely the same as anyone else's: voila the fascination of Rashomon.

P.S. Novels are not exempt; they comprise series of episodes (representational and linguistic) that recapitulate their subjects' characteristics.

Oct. 16 2011 01:09 PM

As a long time OTM listener, I'm used to spoilers: the vile right-wing is always the predictable villain, and the progressive left the hero in their narrative.

Yet I listen anyway.

Go figure.

It must be for the comic relief.

Oct. 16 2011 03:42 AM
Maggie Thompson

Chris Gray has an excellent point - and my guess is that the first publisher (whether print or ebook) to realize and take advantage of it will make a mint. Obtaining a license to produce the "official" wrap-up of mystery series - especially with the cooperation of the series originators - would do mighty well. Think of the size of the audience of even an unsuccessful TV series compared to the sales numbers of many successful books.
And a final (well, I hope I can cease to obsess) comment from me regarding the methods in the Spoiler Study: The first question that SHOULD have been asked participants seems to me to be: "Do you like to solve puzzles?" People who don't give a hoot (or consider working puzzles of all kinds a waste of time) should have been separated in the study from those who, for example, relish the opportunity to participate in the Weekend Edition Sunday competitions, don't you think?

Oct. 13 2011 06:44 PM
Chris Gray from New Haven, CT

What really burns me is all the spoiled set-ups I've had to experience from television series that began and were then cancelled. The FBI agent on Ringer is never coming back to figure out what happened on Flash Forward twice. Moon Bloodgood is never going to get resolution to either of her entrancing mysteries and I'm never going to find out why Traveler hooked up in a New Haven house with two Yale grad school students and made them the fall guys for a NYC museum explosion!

Oct. 13 2011 05:09 PM
Michael C from Los Angeles, California

First, let me say I absolutely love On The Media and it is easily in the top two or three “must-listen-to” podcasts I download each week. And I understand that most people only write in to shows only when they have something to complain about. But...

I have to take issue with the second-to-last segment on the last week’s episode. One scientific study does not a conclusion make. As Jonah Lehrer said last month, scientific journals prefer papers that pass “the mythical test of significance” over null results. As you reported on two years ago, media outlets--specifically health reporters, but it applies here--report on “novel” new studies without waiting for their results to be replicated, and as Lehrer, again, wrote in The New Yorker, new scientific ideas undergo the “decline effect”: other scientists challenge novel new findings and gradually disprove exciting, new theories.

The problem? Again, as you explained last month, scientists and the media don’t publicize the retractions or corrections. I have to say (Spoiler alert!) I think that is what happened here.

Oct. 12 2011 03:53 PM
Alden from New York

While Mr. Lehrer's reporting was interesting, I'm afraid he missed an important fact about the original study conducted by Christenfeld and Leavitt; it's not a very good study to begin with.

The differences between spoiled and unspoiled stories are usually very small, weakening the overall finding.

The stories tested are short stories or novellas, not full length novels, yet the researchers claim that their findings will hold true for longer works.

But the biggest flaw in the study is that the readers, being randomly assigned to the stories that they read, are not fans of the works. Having no initial emotional investment in the outcome of the story, they lose little enjoyment by having it spoiled.

Actual fans of a genre or author, who have an emotional investment in the process of discovery that accompanies the act of reading, and who have built up some degree of anticipation of that process, will have a VERY different reaction to spoilers.

Basically, the researchers conducted a small study of a relatively unusual reading experience and decided to make some rather bold claims about the strength and broad applicability of their results. Hopefully their peers in the field of psychological research will do a through job of poking holes in their conclusions, an hopefully Mr. Lehrer will report on those findings as well.

Oct. 12 2011 11:34 AM
Veri Fields from Indianapolis

It's nice to have some justification for my enjoyment of spoilers (or at least, my usual disregard for them). I've always maintained that a GOOD story will still be enjoyable even if you know what's going to happen, because it's experiencing the how and why that are important. In some genres, this is the entire point. We know that a romantic comedy is always going to end with the couple getting together. We know the stories of Shakespeare and how they end-- you go to see those plays for the individual performances, not to see a new narrative. There are others like this.

Now, a well-engineered surprise is still enjoyable from time to time... but it has to be done properly. If all your main characters suddenly die in an explosion, that's certainly surprising, but not very satisfying.

Most of the time, though, I have enjoyed stories even when spoiled for them, whether the spoiling was accidental (a friend talking about a show I didn't watch but ended up seeing later) or intentional (sometimes hearing there are spoilers makes me seek them out). I've also seen a few shows that were so terrible I stopped watching, but I did look up how they ended, because uncertainty is annoying.

I would be interested to see this conducted on a larger scale and with longer things. For example-- would knowing the ending of Lost keep people from watching, or would they enjoy it knowing the answer to the mystery? I've never seen that show, but I heard there was a lot of controversy and complaints over an unsatisfying answer to the weirdness of the plot.

Oct. 12 2011 09:57 AM
Clopha Deshotel from Bridgeport CT

I would agree with Dianne, Maggie, Remy, and the comment from Santa Rosa. The actual report is coming soon (forthcoming in Psychological Science) so Glenn can get some of his questions answered as well. Wired and OTM is refreshing a love of books and reading (must admit that last chapter first of a book has been my time-saving habit since my undergrad days). Great job, Brooke!

Oct. 10 2011 09:18 PM
Glenn C from Pasadena, CA

Dianne: True, on repeat reading or viewing you're no longer surprised (well, depending on your memory and how much time has gone by), but that's irrelevant. Repeat experiences are *different* from the original, virginal experience. The latter can never be repeated. You take the possibility of having that experience away if you know anything much ahead of time.

By eliminating spoliers, you get to have at least TWO unique experiences with a book, film, play, etc. On repeat reading/viewing, you can enjoy delving into all those nuances of craft. In fact, you can compare your experience to that first one when you had no clue where it was going to go, and better appreciate how it was designed. If you never got that initial virginal experience, you'll never truly know how well it worked, or didn't.

Moreover, there's no way to really know if a story was wrapped up well if you jump to the end without having read or watched it from start to finish. How can you assess how all the nuances of story and character were wrapped up if you don't know them yet?

Not suggesting your way is wrong or bad; indeed, it's great that it works for you and clearly you respect others' tastes. Just different strokes.

Oct. 09 2011 09:09 PM
Dianne from San Diego

I've always read the end of the book first, and nearly always look up the end of the movie before seeing it. Why? Because I don't want to waste time with a book that starts great and ends poorly. And I like seeing how the author works from the beginning to the end....it allows me to pay closer attention to small clues. Spoilers don't ruin anything at all for me. If the story is a good one, you want to hear it, see it, read it more than once, which means, at some point, you've stopped being surprised. I would never, ever reveal the end of a movie or piece of literature to someone who didn't want it (and I am careful not to when I am reviewing something or someone unless they specifically ask me to). Nothing spoils a story for me, but a spoiler saves me from wasting my time on something poorly conceived at the end.

Oct. 09 2011 08:53 PM
Glenn C from Pasadena, CA

One more observation and question:

The study was done only with short stories, right?

That's rather irrelevant to novels, lengthy novel series, movies, miniseries, etc.

There's no time for a reader to get wrapped up in a richly layered story with complex characters in a short story.

A long story is a totally different experience.

Moreover, how many people were in the study? What were their ages, backgrounds, etc.? How large and diverse a test group was it? We'd need to know all of this to pay the study any attention, of course.

Oct. 09 2011 08:41 PM
Glenn C from Pasadena, CA

Oops. Now *I* am dead wrong!

I misheard the story. Mr. Lehrer did not conduct that study. My apologies. Hope I didn't spoil the story too badly.

BTW, everyone should read his book "How We Decide." It's awesome. I won't ruin the answer.

Oct. 09 2011 08:25 PM
Glenn C from Pasadena, CA

SPOILER ALERT: Jonah Lehrer is great, but here he is dead wrong!

Mr. Lehrer is a specific personality type: the type that detests uncertainty. That's fine. It may even be common in our culture. Many people simply can't tolerate uncertainty. They always want the safe and familiar. This is why crappy stories that are familiar, unoriginal retreads are most popular. Many people want that safe feeling of being able to say, "Oh I know this one!" and then watch that one for the umpteenth time. They don't love stories as much as they love being comforted.

But people who really love stories and have no discomfort with uncertainty -- but rather get a thrill from the unexpected -- HATE spoilers.

I hate knowing much of anything about a story before I read a book or see a movie. That thrill of surprise discovery is one of the most deeply, richly satisfying parts of being enveloped in a good tale that I can possibly experience.

E.g., the thrill of discovering, in the flow of the story as it unraveled for the first time, that [SPOILERS!] Katherine is Evelyn Mulwray's sister AND daughter... that Vader is Luke's father... that Harry is the unexpected 8th and must die... that Ender Wiggin was doing it for real... that Rosebud was a toy, etc... is half of what made those stories so wonderful to experience for me.

Knowing any of those things ahead -- or countless less dramatic revelations -- would have KILLED those stories for me. I can enjoy these stories many times over again without that initial surprise, but it's never as enthralling and fulfilling as that virginal experience.

When I saw on the news that a key character had been killed before I saw the episode in question of The Sopranos and Ron Moore's Battlestar Galactica, those episodes were ruined for me. I can't even watch the "Next week on..." previews for a series I love.

Mr. Lehrer is how he is. I'm happy for him that he found some people who are similar, and that this has made him feel better about himself. Because clearly he was feeling significant enough self-doubt to conduct a "study" of sorts. But please don't generalize about everyone. Spoilers kill the experience for every single book and movie lover I know (except my Mom, who would rather watch Mary Poppins over and over than risk the discomfort of an unexpected twist).

Virginal experiences of stories make for a much more rewarding experience. Jonah Lehrer is great, but here he is dead wrong!

Oct. 09 2011 08:11 PM
Santa Rosa, Ca

Nice for me that Jonah Leher is out of the closet re: reading the "end" before the end.. I often do that with no loss of enjoyment if it's a good book without a simple finale. The suspense remains, plot resolution,etc. Thanks, Jonah!

Oct. 09 2011 07:00 PM

I still think it depends on the person. Some people get very upset when spoilers are posted. Believe me, I know.

For myself, as I've grown older, I find I'm increasingly likely to read ahead or even read the ending of many books of multiple genres (incl. mysteries and sci-fi). Sometimes it is just to make sure that the book does actually end and doesn't conclude with a cliffhanger. (I don't want to waste hours and hours reading only to be left hanging.)

Then there are the authors I like who have the unhappy habit of killing off favorite characters (Feist, for one) so I read the ending to find out which characters I shouldn't get too involved with.

Knowing the ending does occasionally kill the story for me, and I stop reading. But other times, it enhances the pleasure because I can enjoy the process without becoming anxious about the outcome.

Oct. 09 2011 06:01 PM
Amos from Danville, VT

Reminds me of cultural differences between US and Japan that led to different marketing strategies for the film "Field of Dreams". Ads in Japan intentionally gave away the ending's "father twist" because of how the Japanese see stories and father relationships. Didn't stop the film's director from being terrified by the Japanese ad philosophy, though.

Oct. 09 2011 02:05 PM
Francisco from Newcastle upon Tyne, UK

I wonder if they checked the nationalities of the participants in the research? I've noticed that movie trailers on-line (which are almost always the American version of a trailer) tend to have spoilers in them whereas the British version of a trailer for the same film would not normally have one.

A British TV series, had a tie-up with an American production company. After the first episode of the new series there was an unexpected 5-10 min trailer that spoiled the subsequent episode(s). I will NEVER watch that series again.

Oct. 09 2011 02:02 PM
Maggie Thompson

I doubt it'd be a Spoiler to say you've received many comments, pro and con, on this matter. I cringe to think at the number of people who will now feel empowered to divulge plot twists with the assurance that it's for the GOOD of the potential reader who does not yet know them. How unsurprising that you even incorporated two gratuitous Spoilers in the coverage. How about suggesting that it might be rude to give away plot elements to people without their permission? Or to assume that "us" means specific people? I assure you: I do NOT enjoy a story more if I am given a summary of plot twists in advance. On the other hand, I love REreading a story to savor its nuances, if I've been surprised by its development. See Murder of Roger Ackroyd (which I DID solve on first reading), And Then There Were None (with two different endings), and "Witness for the Prosecution," just to stick to Agatha Christie.

Oct. 09 2011 01:13 PM

Leave a Comment

Email addresses are required but never displayed.