You ever overhear two people talking about the end of a book you haven't finished or a TV show you haven't caught up on, and before you can plug your ears, the end’s been spoiled for you?
The good news…two professors at UC San Diego recently concluded that despite what you might expect, spoilers don't actually spoil our enjoyment of a story, at least in books. In fact, knowing the ending might make us like a story more. Wired contributor Jonah Lehrer wrote about this study. Jonah, welcome to OTM.
Thanks so much for having me.
This stuns me because my kids told me about the end of Fight Club and now I won't even go see it.
Well, what this study suggests is you’d enjoy Fight Club even more.
This is a paper published by two researchers at the University of California in San Diego. And it was a very simple study. They basically gave several dozen undergrads a bunch of different thriller short stories, stuff by Agatha Christie, The Bet by Chekhov, stuff like that.
And they gave the students these stories in three different conditions. The first condition was the story as is. So you’re reading Agatha Christie as she wrote her mystery novella.
The second condition was a spoiler artfully embedded in the first few pages of the narrative, as if Agatha Christie had given away the ending itself.
The last condition was a spoiler, which is very clearly set apart from the story. So it’s in a different font at the very, very beginning, so it was clear that the scientists themselves had introduced this spoiler.
And when you asked people which version of the story they enjoyed the most, people consistently, in every case but one, enjoyed the story the most when there was a spoiler first.
In every case but one.
The one exception was The Bet by Chekhov. And there I should point out that the difference was statistically insignificant.
How did they explain this?
There are a couple of theories. One theory is that we think we really love big surprise endings, but it turns out that we like suspense but we also like to have a general sense of how the story’s gonna end.
And, and this makes lots of sense to me. I mean, you look at the history of narratives and the history of entertainment, a lot of them are genres, the Hollywood happy ending, the Shakespearean tragedy and the Shakespearean comedy. When you read Pride and Prejudice you're pretty sure it's gonna end in a wedding.
And so it's not as if you can spoil ‘em for us.
What’s so alluring about the narrative is feeling the process. Um, they argue that this applies to most narratives, that this isn't just a by-product of short stories.
Do we know for a fact that knowing that Darth Vader was Luke Skywalker’s dad from the very beginning of Star Wars would make that movie more enjoyable?
You know, we’re got this current obsession, I think, because of movies like The Sixth Sense and The Usual Suspects, with engineering that sudden shocking twist. And I think there are lots of filmmakers, my sense is, who believe that if you can pull that off, you can do anything.
And I think what this study reminds us of is those kinds of sudden twists are profoundly overrated, that people don't actually like them very much. They’re probably more fun to plan than to experience.
And this really all reminds me of the famous distinction made by Alfred Hitchcock. He distinguished between surprises and suspense. He said surprises are cheap and easy. He said, anyone can do a surprise. People don’t enjoy it very much 'cause there's lots of boring tedious stuff, and then there’s this surprising ending.
He said, suspense is really what people should aim for, ‘cause you can have suspense even when you know how it's gonna turn out.
So he gives the example, the people are playing poker at a card table, and the surprise is if there's a bomb under the table that the audiences know about and then 15 minutes of watching them playing poker, and the bomb goes off and they’re all dead.
Suspense is when you know the bomb’s under the table.
You see the tick-tick-tick of the clock. Then there’s suspense. Then all of a sudden it’s not 15 minutes of tedious poker playing. It’s gripping entertainment.
You found this study very comforting, right, because it helped you explain what you considered a character flaw. [LAUGHS]
Yes. You know, I mean, because I read the last five pages first – I mean, I did this even for Harry Potter –
- which I’m ashamed to say, I always thought this revealed some kind of deep impatience on my part, that it really was a personality flaw.
But now I know that I've got empirical support. I actually enjoy my pulp fiction more because I read the ending first.
Do you think that this study about spoilers has any implications for the writing of journalism?
What is a headline but a kind of spoiler? You know, I do think there’s something comforting before you embark on, you know, an article that’s thousands of words long. It’s somehow reassuring to know where exactly you're headed.
And I think a spoiler before an Agatha Christie short story works a bit in the same way. Total uncertainty, people don't actually like it very much. We don’t want to know exactly what's gonna happen, but we want to have some sense of where we’re headed.
Jonah Lehrer is a contributing editor at Wired Magazine. You can find his excellent science blog, “The Frontal Cortex” on Wired’s website. Jonah, say it with me: Rosebud was a –
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