As I’ve stated previously, spoiler alert whiners on the internet are the bane of my existence. Now, thanks to UC San Diego psychology researchers Nicholas Christenfeld and Jonathan Leavitt, my annoyance with them will likely grow exponentially going forward.
Research by the two found that, rather than ruining one’s enjoyment of a story, being aware of crucial plot twists, contrary to conventional wisdom, actually seems to enhance the enjoyment in a story.
Christenfeld and Leavitt ran three experiments with a total of 12 short 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. Subjects read stories as-is and with introductory paragraphs that gave away the endings, or spoilers. In almost all cases, they preferred the “spoiled” stories. 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.
Why? The answers go beyond the scope of the study, but one possibility is perhaps the simplest one: that plot is overrated.
“Plots are just excuses for great writing. What the plot is is (almost) irrelevant. The pleasure is in the writing,” said Christenfeld . . . It’s also possible that it’s “easier” to read a spoiled story. Other psychological studies have shown that people have an aesthetic preference for objects that are perceptually easy to process.
Wow. This is actually kind of revolutionary, and proves something that I’ve long believed: That a great story-teller can make even the most mundane thing — like walking to the corner grocery to buy fruit — seem interesting. In other words, the value of a story isn’t the story itself but rather how the story is presented.
Yeah, I know — that’s some deep sh*t, bro. But that’s not all! There’s another aspect to this as well…
It’s also possible that it’s “easier” to read a spoiled story. Other psychological studies have shown that people have an aesthetic preference for objects that are perceptually easy to process.
“So it could be,” said Leavitt, a psychology doctoral student at UC San Diego, “that once you know how it turns out, it’s cognitively easier – you’re more comfortable processing the information – and can focus on a deeper understanding of the story.”
I believe this is true in just about all cases except for Lost. I don’t think that knowing how that show ended would make any of it easier for the average person to digest. However, me telling you ahead of time that the cat in the gif below shoots laser beams out of its eyes doesn’t diminish your enjoyment of the gif, now does it?
I thought not.