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Spoiler Alert: Why Some People Need to Know How It Ends

Research suggests that “spoiling” a story can actually increase the fun.

Key points

  • Most people go to great lengths to avoid spoilers about their favourite stories, TV shows, or sports games.
  • Research suggests that the strict avoidance of spoilers may not be justified.
  • Experiments show that revealing a story’s ending in advance can actually increase enjoyment, although this may depend on the type of spoiler.
  • A possible reason for the enjoyment of spoilers is perceptual fluency: Knowing the ending in advance can make it easier to follow.
Source: Rido/Shutterstock

Have you ever been late to watch a show on TV and tried to avoid hearing the outcome from a different source before catching up? People go to great lengths to avoid spoilers. I myself remember disabling several news apps on my phone for a day so I wouldn’t discover the latest winner of the "Great British Bakeoff" before watching the final show.

Similarly, in a memorable episode of the U.S. sitcom "How I Met Your Mother," the five main characters engage in somewhat comical efforts to prevent themselves from finding out the Super Bowl results before catching up with the game. News presenter Robin starts singing on national TV so she won’t hear the sports commentator’s report. Architect Ted invests considerable efforts into constructing a pair of sense-depriving goggles. These allow him to walk through a sports bar (and buy the all-important hot wings!) without discovering the winning team.

All evidence appears to suggest that people detest spoilers and avoid them at all costs. But is this strong avoidance justified? Does knowing the ending of a story or the outcome of a sports game really ruin the experience of discovering it on your own?

A team of psychology researchers tackled this question in a series of three experiments. They presented more than 800 participants with short stories of up to 4,200 words. Each experiment tested a different type of literary genre including ironic-twist stories, mysteries, and more evocative literary stories. Within that genre, participants were given different stories to read, some of which were preceded by spoilers and some of which were “unspoiled.” Afterward, they were asked to rate how much they had enjoyed their reading experience.

Surprisingly, participants gave high ratings to stories that had been “spoiled” in advance. In fact, the results suggested that participants generally preferred the stories whose endings had been revealed to them in a spoiler. It seemed that rather than ruining the story, spoilers made the experience more fun!

Why Would We Like Spoilers?

The empirical research reviewed above suggests that people strangely enjoy the effects of spoilers despite actively seeking to avoid them. The researchers speculated that these counterintuitive findings could have different theoretical reasons.

  • Perceptual fluency: A potential reason for liking stories with a known ending is perceptual fluency. After reading a spoiler, the upcoming contents of a story are anticipated and therefore processed more easily. The cognitive burden on the reader is lightened. As a result, different elements of the story are easier to integrate and comprehend. This makes the experience more enjoyable.
  • Pleasurable tension: An alternative (or additional reason) for enjoying spoiled stories is the pleasurable tension created by knowing about an upcoming story twist. Being informed about an otherwise surprising outcome in advance increases a reader’s excitement. It also draws more attention to how the story’s characters deal with the foretold challenges.

The Evidence Against Spoilers

As outlined above, there are plausible theoretical underpinnings for people’s love of spoiled stories. However, recent follow-up research suggests that things aren’t quite so simple after all. In a similar study from 2016, researchers found the opposite effect of spoilers. Participants in their experiment enjoyed “spoiled” stories significantly less than those where the ending had not been foretold.

How can we explain this contrasting evidence? The researchers attributed this to the use of different stories and different kinds of spoilers in their follow-up study. The more recent investigation used shorter spoilers that focused on the very ending of the story. In the earlier study, on the other hand, spoilers conveyed more nuanced information such as the story’s overall theme. The way a spoiler is presented seems to matter greatly for people’s subsequent experience.

Additionally, the second study suggested the importance of individual differences. It seemed that participants with a higher “need for cognition” (i.e. those who enjoy thinking and puzzling more than the average person) were particularly frustrated by spoilers revealing the ending of a story in advance. This finding makes intuitive sense. Those people, who like to think harder when reading stories or watching TV shows, don’t like the challenge to be taken away by a spoiler.

Do People Like Spoilers?

Even though the experimental findings aren’t clear-cut, it appears that giving away the ending of a story, competition, or sports game might not be as detrimental to enjoyment as previously believed. In some cases, being able to predict what is going to happen definitely seems to improve the experience—this is particularly true for those of us who prefer not to puzzle too hard when following a story.

Further supporting this notion is evidence that people enjoy re-watching their favourite TV shows and films many times. Personally, I love revisiting videos of yoga classes. The more familiar I am with a particular yoga sequence, the easier it is for me to let go. Decreasing the cognitive challenge that comes from paying attention to the teacher’s cues helps me to de-stress and enjoy the movement even more.

Let me finish by quoting the wise words of Ted Mosby from "How I Met Your Mother": “Sometimes, even if you know how something's going to end, that doesn't mean you can't enjoy the ride.”

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