Scientific Proof That Spoilers Don’t Hurt Your Enjoyment Of Stories
The spoiler brigade has gotten really OCD over the last couple of years. There isn’t a week that goes by on Twitter where I’m not called out for spoiling something - despite the fact that I am almost NEVER spoiling anything. Last week people bitched at me for saying that ‘Why cookie Rocket’ was the best line in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, which is about as non-spoiler as you can get. Not only is that statement free of any context, the line itself isn’t even all that big of a deal or revelatory.
Actually, I look at the original Planet of the Apes as the ultimate argument against spoilerphobes. Everybody knows the conclusion of that film - hell, the Statue of Liberty was on the VHS cover. But the movie still works because it’s a good story well told. The introduction of the apes, coming through the tall grass on a hunt, is a completely powerful and great and scary moment because it’s well shot, not because it’s a shock. Every single person watching Planet of the Apes is pretty sure what’s going to come out of that field, since they’ve seen the apes on posters, on the DVD box, in trailers, on toy shelves, etc.
Now there’s scientific proof that spoilers don’t hurt your enjoyment of a story. Researchers at UC San Diego ran experiment where they gave one group unspoiled stories to read, and another group stories that were prefaced by spoilers. The spoiled group registered more enjoyment of the stories.
Three types of stories were studied: ironic-twist, mystery and literary. Each story – classics by the likes of John Updike, Roald Dahl, Anton Chekhov, Agatha Christie and Raymond Carver – was presented as-is (without a spoiler), with a prefatory spoiler paragraph or with that same paragraph incorporated into the story as though it were a part of it. Each version of each story was read by at least 30 subjects. Data from subjects who had read the stories previously were excluded.
Subjects significantly preferred the spoiled versions of ironic-twist stories, where, for example, it was revealed before reading that a condemned man’s daring escape is all a fantasy before the noose snaps tight around his neck.
The same held true for mysteries. 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.
Subjects liked the literary, evocative stories least overall, but still preferred the spoiled versions over the unspoiled ones.
What’s interesting is that all of the stories they used seem to be GOOD STORIES. Good stories transcend spoilers. Surprise is the cheapest form of entertainment. It’s easy to surprise somebody, but it’s much harder to keep a reader in suspense, or to engage them on a deeper level.
It’s interesting that the spoiled mysteries were much more enjoyed. I suspect that it’s because the spoiling allowed the reader to engage the story in a more complete way, actually finding the clues as opposed to bouncing around from clue to clue. Literature isn’t a game, and there’s something deeply satisfying about seeing the pieces falling into place and understanding what they mean.
I’ll continue being anti-spoilerphobe, and I’m glad I have science on my side.