Story telling is a universal human trait, spanning cultures, civilizations, and time. We love a good story, and since we have been telling stories for thousands of years, we know what makes for a good story and exciting experience.
Or do we?
One of our favorite parts of a good story is the ending, and we go through great lengths just to avoid overhearing the ending of a movie we haven’t seen or a book we haven’t read, and when we unfortunately do overhear the end we feel that our experience is now spoiled. After all that’s why they call them “spoilers”.
But as it turns out, poor little spoilers have been given a bad rap this whole time. The latest research published in the journal Psychological Science shows that knowing the ending of a story before you read it doesn’t hurt the experience of the story. It actually makes you enjoy the story more. This is the “Spoiler Paradox”.
Researchers Nicholas Christenfeld and Jonathan Leavitt from the University of California, San Diego's psychology department conducted three experiments with twelve short stories (from authors such as John Updike, Agatha Christie, and Anton Chekhov). The stories included ironic-twists, mysteries, and evocative literary stories. In two of the conditions they gave away the endings of the stories. One of those conditions gave away the ending with the spoiler as independent text preceding the story, and in the second condition the spoiler was incorporated as an opening paragraph for the story. The last condition had no spoiler.
The findings of the study indicated that in each type of story (ironic-twist, mystery, and evocative story), the participants preferred the spoiled versions over the unspoiled ones, and they preferred the stories even more when the spoiler was included as introductory text separate from the story.
This finding completely topples over our conventional wisdom of stories and raises one big question:
In 1944, Fritz Heider and Mary-Ann Simmel from Smith College conducted an elegantly simple yet powerful study. The researchers showed participants an animation of two triangles and a circle moving around a square. You can see the animation for yourself here.
When watching the demonstration it is hard not to add your own dialogue to explain what is going on in the scene. The study found that most participants described the circle and blue triangle as being “in love” with the “big-bad” grey triangle “trying to get in the way”. The participants were using narratives to describe the actions and described the scene as if the objects had intentions and motivations.
This study demonstrates the human instinct for storytelling, which implies that storytelling fulfills or facilitates a basic human function. Humans are social animals and stories are an important tool to help us understand human behavior and to communicate our understanding to others.
This has to do with what psychologists call “theory of mind”. Having a theory of mind means that we have the ability to attribute thoughts, desires, motivations, and intentions of others, and we use this to predict and explain actions and behaviors of others. Because we have the ability to attribute intention to others and understand how that intention can cause behavior, stories are important because they allow us to communicate this cause and effect relationship. This is important to remember because this means that a story is good if it fulfills its function: effectively communicating information to others.
This is why a “spoiled” story (where we know the ending beforehand) is more engaging than stories that leave us hanging. Spoiled stories are easier to follow and understand than stories where the ending is unknown. In their study, the authors describe how “suspense regarding the outcome may not be critical, and could even impair pleasure by distracting attention from relevant details and aesthetic attributes”.
You have probably witnessed how a good story is one that can be repeated over and over again with the same engagement. A story where the ending is known forehand makes for a good story because it can be processed with ease, facilitating communication, and also ensuring the likelihood that it can be repeated.
Think of stories that have stood the test of time, stories such as Oedipus to the Trojan Horse. Even though the ending is well known (e.g. Oedipus will kill his father and marry his mother; the Greeks will hide in a giant hollowed out wooden horse in order to gain access into the walled city of Troy), this does not decrease the engagement of listening to the story. “So it could be,” said Leavitt, co-author of the study, “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.”
This is important since we use stories to communicate complex ideas, from religious beliefs to societal values. Take the story of Job found in the Old Testament. The Israelites used this story to understand why a good pious man could still suffer and experience misfortune. Or take the childhood story of the “Boy Who Cried Wolf”. This story teaches us the moral lesson that if you tell fibs—especially when communicating important information—no one will believe you when you are telling the truth.
We transmit these complex ideologies through stories because they can be processed and retained with greater ease than through straight text. In fact research has shown that not only do we respond more positively to information when it is in narrative form than simple text (Escalas, 2007), but information labeled as “fact” versus “fiction” increases critical analysis (Green et al, 2006). This suggests that we are more receptive to information in narrative form.
As we can see, stories are an effective way to communicate sophisticated bodies of knowledge. Think about this: with a word you understand one term or concept, but with a story you can communicate an entire causal sequence of events, understand human intentions, moral rules, philosophical beliefs, and societal conventions.
So this means that a spoiler is not really a spoiler at all. It takes a complex story and simplifies it, allowing you to process it easier. The ability to process it easier allows you to be more engaged in the story and understand it to a deeper level. And think, just maybe, if that “spoiled” story is good enough, it can last for thousands of years exposing it to future generations of readers.
Adoree Durayappah, M.A.P.P., M.B.A., is a writer and psychologist with an addition to academia. Learn more at AdoreeDurayappah.com.
Green, M.C., Garst, J., Brock, T.C., & Chung, S. (2006). Fact versus fiction labeling: Persuasion parity despite heightened scrutiny of fact. Media Psychology 8(3), 267-285.
Jonathan D. Leavitt and Nicholas J. S. Christenfeld (2011). 'Story Spoilers Don’t Spoil Stories', Psychological Science.