Do Spoilers Really Ruin a Story? Or Can They Make You Enjoy It More?

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Spoiler alert: the jury’s actually still out on this one, it would seem.

Personally, I lie at true neutral on this matter. In my own experiences, I’ve found that spoilers neither really add nor take away from my enjoyment of stories. Even if something is spoiled, it doesn’t upset me, and I will still thoroughly enjoy the book (or movie or show or whatever it is) as long as I was already interested in it in the first place. Sometimes, spoilers will even make me more interested in something and will lead me to read or watch something I hadn’t originally planned on consuming at all. On the other hand, I’m also not the type to actively seek out spoilers — no reading the last page of a book first or scouring forums for leaked info here!

I know people all across this spectrum — from those vehemently against any information that could give anything away at all, to those who need to know absolutely everything ahead of time. And to me, both arguments have valid points. So what’s the truth of the matter? Let’s take a look at what the research says.

On the “for” side, findings from a study conducted by Jonathan Leavitt and Nicholas Christenfeld at the University of California San Diego showed that people in fact enjoyed spoiled stories more. In the initial experiment, which was published in 2011, approximately 800 participants were asked to read three short stories of different types: mystery, ironic-twist, and literary. Of the three stories, one was spoiled by presenting a “spoiler paragraph” (a short introduction to the story that seemingly inadvertently reveals the ending) before the story, one was presented completely unspoiled, and the third was presented with the spoiler paragraph incorporated as the opening of the story itself. The participants would then rate how much they enjoyed each story on a 1 to 10 scale. And for all three types of stories, the participants rated spoiled stories higher than those that weren’t.

Leavitt and Christenfeld conducted a follow-up study, published in 2013, that tried to get deeper into the why of the positive effects of spoilers. This time, participants were stopped halfway through reading the stories to rate how much they were enjoying them. And despite not having reached the spoiled ending yet, participants rated the spoiled stories higher yet again! Based on this study, the fluency of people’s reading — their ability to interpret various clues and plot points — is increased when a story is spoiled, and could be why spoilers produce this effect.

An additional interesting point about the appeal of spoilers is their role as paratext. In the book Show Sold Separately: Promos, Spoilers, and Other Media Paratexts, author Jonathan Gray discusses how various media and cultural conversations shape our experiences of and relationships to films and television. Gray and his colleague Jason Mittell conducted a study about spoilers and why a certain faction of fans of the show Lost actively sought out spoilers as a regular practice. Based on an online survey of about 200 viewers, Gray and Mittell found that, while spoilers do certainly decrease the shock value of such suspenseful and plot-heavy series as Lost, they did not take away from other aspects of the show, such as the performances and dialogue, production value, etc. In fact, spoilers allowed viewers to zero in on and appreciate those elements more. For others, spoilers played a role in gamifying viewers’ experiences of the show. They were tidbits of information that were part of the larger puzzle that was the vast and complex experience of Lost. And yet others read spoilers as a way to mitigate the anticipation between episodes, satisfying their cravings for more of the content they loved with more immediacy than a one-episode-per-week series could on its own. While Lost is certainly a very particular example, one can see how these points could transfer over to other similarly intricate and convoluted stories.

Moving over to the “against” side of the spoiler discussion, a study conducted at VU University Amsterdam resulted in findings that directly contradicted the University of California study results from just a few years prior. Benjamin Johnson, the corresponding author of the study, had originally expected the results to corroborate Leavitt and Christenfeld’s findings. Similarly to the University of California study, in Johnson’s experiment, approximately 400 university students were asked to read short stories and rate them afterward. The participants were given summaries of the stories before reading them, and some of these summaries contained spoilers. In this study, separate ratings were given for how moving, suspenseful, and engaging readers found the stories. And the spoiled stories were consistently rated lower on all fronts!

As Jennifer Richler wrote in The Atlantic, there’s also a lot of psychological research about pleasure and why people love stories in the first place. And plenty of that research, if applied to the question of whether spoilers ruin or improve stories, would certainly suggest the former. First off, the human brain isn’t the best at distinguishing what’s real and what’s fiction — even if you know something’s fake, we still derive the same feelings that we would if it were real because there is a small part of us that wants to believe. And spoilers can ruin that small belief. Additionally, research about pleasure has found that anticipation is a huge source of that emotion, and spoilers would put a damper on that source.

So in conclusion, I’d say we can’t conclude one way or another whether spoilers ruin or enhance stories. As we already understood before, it seems to be a simple matter of personal preference. Reddit threads debating this topic include comments from people with all various levels of spoiler tolerance. And my fellow Rioters also range in their preferences, from the pro-spoiler crowd, to those who won’t read jacket copy that gives too much away, to those whose thoughts vary depending on the genre or even type of spoiler (and queer identity ain’t a spoiler, while we’re here). So there is no one right answer here, at least not one that we have overwhelming evidence that we can point to with certainty. Keep enjoying your stories how you want to enjoy them, whether that be spoiler-free, spoiler-full, or somewhere in between.