Debunking The Science Myth That People Love Spoilers
In 2011, California psychologists concluded that the best way to experience a story is to have the twist spoiled for you in advance. You've likely seen a bunch of articles citing this study. Since we're spending this week doing a deep dive on the subject of plot twists, it's our duty to inform you this famous study was garbage.
Most psychological studies are garbage, actually. The way psych studies work, a professor usually assembles a bunch of students, students forced to participate for course credit. They do some tasks or fill out forms, and if the results support the professor's hypothesis, the study's published. If they don't, no one ever hears what happened. So, the results don't say anything about psychology, they just say what one group of kids did one time. Far more often than not, when someone later tries to replicate the study, they fail to get the same result.
So, in general, when you read about a psych study, you're best off paying no heed to the findings. But let's look a little closer at this one because its flaws make it extra special.
The professors made students read short stories with twists. These included the famous "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," the Hercule Poirot story "The Chess Problem," and more. Some students read versions with the twists laid out in an introductory paragraph. Consistently, these students said they enjoyed the stories more than the students who read the stories unspoiled.
Well, perhaps they did enjoy the stories more that way. But the students weren't reading the stories for fun at all. They were reading because they had to. You, the fine person reading this very article for fun right now, might enjoy taking a few minutes to read "The Bet" by Anton Chekhov, but if you were one of these students forced to read it as part of a study, you'd want to get it over with as quickly and easily as possible. Yes, a synopsis makes a story less of a chore, but that proves nothing about what spoilers do for those who want to be hit by a story's full force rather than to be shielded from it.
The same professors did a follow-up study a few years later, using simpler texts, so the spoilers didn't ease the reading process, they only spoiled the twists. This time, respondents who read spoilers enjoyed the stories no more than those who were unspoiled.
Also, since they tested short stories, neither study simulated the experience of having a full-length movie, novel, or TV series spoiled for you. With longer stories, you connect with the characters emotionally and invest deeply in the plot in ways you can't with stories as short as the ones studied. The stories were as short as 1,400 words, shorter than a Cracked list article. Short stories, as good as they can be, can't play with assumptions built over hours like a film can, or pay off a plot you've cared about for years like with TV.
Most importantly, though, the studies compared the wrong things. The original study concluded that people appreciate stories more when they know the ending in advance. That might actually be true. Unless you know about a twist, you can't value how a story sets that twist up. But if you go into a story unspoiled, you will get to experience it knowing the ending in advance. You'll experience it that way when you reread/rewatch it, which you'll choose to do if the story's good enough. So, both the spoiled and unspoiled viewer get that informed experience in the end, but only the unspoiled viewer first also gets the experience of feeling the intended surprise upon getting the twist at the proper moment.
So the real question is, who appreciates a story more: the person who goes in having already got the twist spoiled, or the person who experiences the whole thing unspoiled, the twist totally surprising them, and then also later sees the story again with full knowledge and gets to experience in a different way. Our money's on the second person.
Some people don't care about that. When you seek out trailers, promo shots, plot leaks, etc., and so miss out on the perfect first viewing, maybe you enjoy the hype cycle. Maybe the fun of discussing drip-fed info makes up for missing out on seeing the full film unspoiled. It depends entirely on how you personally enjoy media. But it's a tradeoff, so don't pretend there's no cost.
Incidentally, the two psychologists behind that study didn't exactly go on to illustrious careers in academia. One of them wrote three papers total—the two spoiler research papers we covered here, and then one more, also about literature. The other was fired from his tenured position after several sexual misconduct complaints. Using this study sample, we can conclude that if you like spoilers, there's a good chance that you are a sex criminal.
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Top image: Buena Vista Pictures