Science-- there's something for everyone

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Spoiler alert: spoilers don't ruin stories

Here’s another story that could be filed under surprising results.  People who are exposed to story spoilers may enjoy the subsequent plot more than those who were not tipped off ahead of time.  This was true even for mysteries and thrillers.

Nicholas Christenfeld and Jonathan Leavitt of the University of California at San Diego took 12 classic short stories, many of which were either pure mysteries or contained at least one surprising twist, and added some spoilers to the beginning. Each version of each story (spoiled and unspoiled) was read by at least 30 volunteers (none of whom had prior familiarity with the works). 

In all cases, the readers significantly preferred the spoiled versions, even when the introductory paragraph gave away the answer to the mystery or ‘ruined’ the surprise ending.  Apparently, knowing who done it ahead of time can actually enhance the pleasure of reading a mystery, rather than detracting from it.

It’s not clear why this should be so.  One possibility advanced by the researchers is that the main enjoyment derived from a story does not come from the plot itself, but rather from the way a storyteller crafts his words.  If so, a spoiler may actually create anticipation to see how the author will take the reader to the pre-revealed end.

A few caveats for those eager to embrace this new license to spoil.  First, not all spoiling is equal.  For example, when the scientists tried inserting the spoiler paragraph into the center of the story rather than at the very beginning, readers didn’t like it as much.  Second, this result may not hold true for movies or plays.  And finally, it will probably make people mad when you spoil their books or movies for them, even if you explain that you’ve just done them a favor.