The Spoiler Paradox

My daughter likes to tell me the ending of cartoons, movies, books, you name.  Even if I ask her not to, she seems to get perverse pleasure from hearing me beg her not to tell me what happens.  I’ve always felt that knowing the end ruins it for me.  I don’t want to know who the murderer is before I read a book or watch a movie.  I don’t want know the final score of a hockey game if I intend to watch it later.  Yet according to researchers Nicholas Christenfeld and Jonathan Leavitt from the University of California, San Diego’s psychology department, I’ve likely got it all wrong.

In a study published last year, Christenfeld and Leavitt found that students who knew the ending of a story actually enjoyed the story more than students who did not.  For their study, they conducted experiments using twelve short stories (from authors such as John Updike, Agatha Christie, and Anton Chekhov).  The stories included ones with ironic-twists, mysteries, and ones they classified as literary.  In two of the experiments they gave away the endings of the stories; in one as independent text preceding the story, and in the other as a spoiler incorporated into the opening paragraph of the story, as if the author had intended it to be there.  As a control, they provided the story as it was originally written with no spoiler.

As counter intuitive as it may seem, Christenfeld and Leavitt found that for each type of story the participants preferred the spoiled versions over the unspoiled one, and they preferred the stories even more when the spoiler was included as introductory text separate from the story.  Why?

Christenfeld and Leavitt suggested that once a reader knew how the story turned out, it’s easier for the reader to focus on gaining a deeper understanding of the story.  Spoiled stories are easier to follow and understand than stories where the ending is unknown.  The authors concluded the “suspense regarding the outcome may not be critical, and could even impair pleasure by distracting attention from relevant details and aesthetic attributes.”

I’m not entirely sure I buy it, but maybe there is some truth to it.  I know people who can re-read a book over and over enjoy it.  I’m not one of them.  I’ve only ever re-read three books and one of those was by accident—I hadn’t realized I had read it until I was about a third of the way through it.  I must admit, the other two (Michael Moorcock’s Behold the Man and J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings) were just as enjoyable the second time around.  Perhaps I should try re-reading some of my other favorite books, and the next time my daughter starts to tell me the ending of a cartoon we’re watching, I’m going to let her, and then see if I still enjoy it.

About D. Thomas Minton

Writer of speculative fiction
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