Spoiler Alert: We Like to Know How Stories End
By Inga Kiderra
Many of us go to extraordinary lengths to avoid learning the endings of stories we have yet to read or see – plugging our ears, for example, and loudly repeating “la-la-la-la,” when discussion threatens to reveal the outcome. Of book and movie critics, we demand they not give away any plot twists or, at least, oblige with a clearly labeled “spoiler alert.” We get angry with friends who slip up and spill a fictional secret.
But we’re wrong and wasting our time, suggests a new experimental study from the University of California, San Diego. People who flip to the last page of a book before starting it have the better intuition. Spoilers don’t spoil stories. Contrary to popular wisdom, they actually seem to enhance enjoyment.
The overall findings are consistent with the experience most of us have had: A favorite tale can be re-read multiple times with undiminished pleasure. A beloved movie can be watched again and again.
“Stories are a universal element of human culture, the backbone of the billion-dollar entertainment industry, and the medium through which religion and societal values are transmitted,” the researchers write. In other words, narratives are incredibly important. But their success doesn’t seem to hinge on simple suspense.
But the UC San Diego researchers are careful to note that they do not have a new recipe for writers to follow. After all, spoilers helped only when presented in advance, outside of the piece. When the researchers inserted a spoiler directly into a story, it didn’t go over quite as well.
Researchers Nicholas Christenfeld and Jonathan Leavitt conclude the paper by saying that perhaps some of our “other intuitions about suspense may be similarly wrong.”
“Perhaps,” they write, “birthday presents are better when wrapped in cellophane, and engagement rings are better when not concealed in chocolate mousse.”
We might be also well-advised to reconsider surprise parties, Christenfeld said. Meanwhile, he and Leavitt continue to investigate what makes stories work – or not. Numerous recent scandals about fictionalized memoirs have inspired them to explore why it matters that a story be true. “Why does it matter,” Christenfeld said, “whether something happened to one person in five billion or to no one? If the story is still a good story, why do we care?”
This is an excerpt from UC San Diego News Center. Read the full news release here.