Why Are They Called “Spoilers”?

Can plot details rot your enjoyment of a story?

Posted Jun 01, 2013

Imagine you are running experiments with mice. You deprive the mice of food until they get hungry and then you drop them into a maze. Now obviously the hungry mice are pretty invested in the idea of finding the food; you have been starving them and all. You’re not really that evil of a researcher, though: in one group, you color-code the maze so the mice always know where to go to find the reward. The mice, I expect, would not be terribly bothered by your providing them with information and, if they could talk, I doubt many of them would complain about your “spoiling” the adventure of finding the food themselves. In fact, I would also expect most people would respond the same way when they were hungry: they would rather you provide them with the information they sought directly instead of having to make their own way through the pain of a maze (or do some equally-annoying psychological task) before they could eat. We ought to expect this because, at least in this instance, as well as many others, having access to greater quantities of accurate information allows you to do more useful things with your time. Knowing where food is cuts down on your required search time, which allows you to spend that time in other, more fruitful ways (like doing pretty much anything that undergraduates can do that doesn’t involve serving a participant for psychologists). So what are we to make of cases where people seem to actively avoid such information and claim they find it aversive?

Spoiler warning: If you would rather formulate your own ideas first, stop reading now.

The topic arose for me lately in the context of the upcoming E3 event, where the next generation of video games will be previewed. There happens to be one video game specifically I find myself heavily invested in and, for whatever reason, I find myself wary of tuning into E3 due to the risk of inadvertently exposing myself to any more content from the game. I don’t want to know what the story is; I don’t want to see any more game play; I want to remain as ignorant as possible until I can experience the game firsthand. I’m also far from alone in that experience: of approximately 40,000 who have voiced their opinions, a full half reported that they found spoilers unpleasant. Indeed, the word that refers to the leaking of crucial plot details itself implies that the experience of learning them can actually ruin the pleasure that finding them out for yourself can bring, in much the same way that microorganisms make food unpalatable or dangerous to ingest. Am I, along with the other 20,000, simply mistaken? That is, do spoilers actually make the experience of reading some book or playing some video game any less pleasant? At least two people think that answer is “yes”.

Leavitt & Chistienfeld (2011) suggest that spoilers, in fact, do not make the experience of a story any less pleasant. After all, the authors mention people are perfectly willing to experience stories again, such as by rereading a book, without any apparent loss of pleasure from the story (curiously they cite no empirical evidence on this front, making it an untested assumption). Leavitt & Christienfeld also suggested that perceptual fluency (in the form of familiarity) with a story might make it more pleasant because the information subsequently becomes easier to process. Finally, the pair appear all but entirely disinterested in positing any reasons as to why so many people might find spoilers unpleasant. The most they offer up is the possibility that suspense might have something to do with it, but we’ll return to that point later. The authors, like your average person discussing spoilers, didn’t offer anything resembling a compelling reason as for why people might not like them. They simply note that many people think spoilers are unpleasant and move on.

In any case, to test whether spoilers really spoiled things, they recruited approximately 800 subjects to read a series of short stories, some of which came with a spoiler, some of which without, and some in which the spoiler was presented as the opening paragraph of the short story itself. These stories were short indeed: between 1,400 and 4,200 words a piece, which amounts to the approximate length of this post to about three of them. I think this happens to be another important detail to which I’ll return later, (as I have no intention of spoiling my ideas fully yet). After the subjects had read each story, they rated how much they enjoyed it on a scale of 1 to 10. Across all three types of stories that were presented – mysteries, ironic twists, and literary ones – subjects actually reported liking the spoiled stories somewhat more than the non-spoiled ones. The difference was slight, but significant, and certainly not in the spoiler-are-ruining-things direction. From this, the authors suggest that people are, in fact, mistaken in their beliefs about whether spoilers have any adverse impact on the pleasure one gets from a story. They also suggest that people might like birthday presents more if they were wrapped in clear cellophane.

Then you can get the disappointment over with much quicker.

Is this widespread avoidance of spoilers just another example of quirky, “irrational” human behavior, then, born from the fact that people tend to not have side-by-side exposure to both spoiled and non-spoiled version of a story? I think Leavitt & Christenfeld are being rather hasty in their conclusion, to put it mildly. Let’s start with the first issue: when it comes to my concern over watching the E3 coverage, I’m not worried about getting spoilers for any and all games. I’m worried about getting spoilers for one specific game, and it’s a game from a series I already have a deep emotional commitment to (Dark Souls, for the curious reader). When Harry Potter fans were eagerly awaiting the moment they got to crack open the next new book in the series, I doubt they would care much one way or the other if you told them about the plot to the latest Die Hard movie. Similarly, a hardcore Star Wars fan would probably not have enjoyed someone leaving the theater in 1980 blurting out that Darth Vader was Luke’s father; by comparison, someone who didn’t know anything about Star Wars probably wouldn’t have cared. In other words, the subjects likely have absolutely no emotional attachment to the stories they were reading and, as such, the information they were being given was not exactly a spoiler. If the authors weren’t studying what people would typically consider aversive spoilers in the first place, then their conclusions about spoilers more generally are misplaced.

One of the other issues, as I hinted at before, is that the stories themselves were all rather short. It would take no more than a few minutes to read even the longest of them. This lack of investment of time could cause a major issue for the study but, as the authors didn’t posit any good reasons for why people might not like spoilers in the first place, they didn’t appear to give the point much, if any, consideration. Those who care about spoilers, though, seem to be those who consider themselves part of some community surrounding the story; people who have made some lasting emotional connection with in it along with at least a moderately deep investment of time and energy. At the very least, people have generally selected the story to which they’re about to be exposed themselves (which is quite unlike being handed a preselected story by an experimenter).

If the phenomenon we’re considering appears to be a costly act with no apparent compensating benefits – like actively avoiding information that would otherwise require a great deal of temporal investment to obtain – then it seems we’re venturing into the realm of costly signaling theory (Zahavi, 1975). Perhaps people are avoiding the information ahead of time so they can display their dedication to some person, group, or signal something about themselves by obtaining the information personally. If the signal is too cheap, its information value can be undermined, and that’s certainly something people might be bothered by.

So, given the length of these stories, there didn’t seem to be much that one could actually spoil. If one doesn’t need to invest any real time or energy in obtaining the relevant information, spoilers would not be likely to cause much distress, even in cases where someone was already deeply committed to the story. At worst, the spoilers have ruined what would have been 5 minutes of effort. Further, as I previously mentioned, people don’t seem to dislike receiving all kinds of information (“spoilers” about the location of food or plot detains from stories they don’t care about, for instance). In fact, we ought to expect people to crave these “spoilers” with some frequency, as information gain for cheap or free is, on the whole, generally a good thing. It is only when people are attempting to signal something with their conspicuous ignorance that we ought to expect “spoilers” to actually be spoilers, because it is only then that they have the potential spoil anything. In this case, they would be ruining an attempt to signal some underlying quality of the person who wants to find out for themselves.

Similar reasoning helps explain why it’s not enough for them to just hate people privately.

In two short pages, then, the paper by Leavitt & Christenfeld (2011) demonstrates a host of problems that can be found in the field of psychological research. In fact, this might be the largest number of problems I’ve seen crammed into such a small space. First, they appear to fundamentally misunderstand the topic they’re ostensibly researching. It seems, to me, anyway, as if they’re trying to simply find a new “irrational belief” that people hold, point it out, and say, “isn’t that odd?”. Of course, simply finding a bias or mistaken belief doesn’t explain anything about it, and there’s little to no apparent effort made to understand why people might hold said odd belief. The best the authors offer is that the tension in a story might be heightened by spoilers, but that only comes after they had previously suggested that such suspense might detract from enjoyment by diverting a reader’s attention. While these two claims aren’t necessarily opposed, they seem at least somewhat conflicting and, in any case, neither claim is ever tested.

There’s also a conclusion that vastly over-reaches the scope of the data and is phrased without the necessary cautions. They go from saying that their data “suggest that people are wasting their time avoiding spoilers” to intuitions about spoilers just being flat-out “wrong”. I will agree that people are most definitely wasting their time by avoiding spoilers. I would just also add that, well, that waste is probably the entire point.

References: Leavitt JD, & Christenfeld NJ (2011). Story spoilers don’t spoil stories. Psychological science, 22 (9), 1152-4 PMID: 21841150

Zahavi, M. (1975). Mate selection – A selection for a handicap. Journal of Theoretical Biology, 53, 205-214.

Copyright Jesse Marczyk