The Science Behind Spoilers

I’m writing this mere hours after watching the long-awaited (well for me) Gilmore Girls revival on Netflix. Almost 9 years after I sat on my parents couch watching the finale of my beloved series I got to sit on my own couch and see what’s happened in Stars Hollow since. But, before I got to sit on my couch and ignore the world I had to join the real world, and go through my day avoiding the minefield of potential spoilers. Getting spoiled about the world of Gilmore Girls may not be everyone’s worst nightmare, but it feeds in to this “spoiler culture” that we are living in right now. Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and any other news source on the web are all filled with articles about your favourite show. With streaming sites like Netflix dropping every episode at once, and the world of television changing, it means that everyone has access to all of this content at the same time. However, it also means that it’s impossible to know when everyone has finished watching all of “The Crown” or “Narcos” and as such, when to start blabbing all over social media about it.

Leavitt and Christenfeld’s 2011 short report entitled “Story Spoilers Don’t Spoil Stories” examines whether spoilers will diminish your enjoyment of stories (in their study, short stories in particular). Spoiler: They find that they do not. In this study they recruited 819 participants to read three different types of short stories: ironic-twist, mystery, and evocative literary stories. Those that were “spoiled” included either a paragraph before the story began, explaining the “twist”, or it was included and written into the start of the story. Leavitt and Christenfeld (2011) found that participants preferred the spoiled stories to the non-spoiled stories overall, regardless of the type or how the spoiler was incorporated into the text. While it is evident in the figure below that the spoiled version of a story was significantly preferred, the non-spoiled versions were still enjoyed.

Leavitt & Christenfeld (2011)

To a certain extent I can understand this. I love watching movies about real people and real events because it saves me from getting too emotionally invested or anxious about the plot i’m watching. Knowing that Tom Hanks would not die in Apollo 13 because, well, he doesn’t die, made me enjoy the movie in a much different light than another movie about a problematic spaceship. I’m also particularly bad for getting overly invested into characters while watching shows and movies so I will occasionally read synopses of later episodes, effectively spoiling myself when things get too stressful. And let’s not forget about all of those “last page first” readers, who flip to the last page to see what happens before they’ve finished the book. While I vehemently oppose this practice I also understand it. Being in the dark is scary and sometimes it makes you feel comforted to go through a project knowing that the main character makes it out alive.

So does that mean that we should forgo this spoiler-phobic culture and embrace the spoilers, learning all we can about a movie, book, or show even before we start? A blog (Brain Knows Better) written by Dr. Ali Mattu comments on this paper by Leavitt and Christenfeld (2011) and comments in particular about how emotional investment is a critical factor in someones’ enjoyment of media and how spoilers for a certain movie may be worse than others. When you are invested in something and following a story, suddenly receiving a spoiler has the ability to remove you from that world. It throws you into the real world and makes you remember that what you are consuming is fiction. Receiving a spoiler before you start reading or watching something, before you have even entered that world is completely different from being spoiled halfway through Game of Thrones.

[SPOILERS FOR GAME OF THRONES]. A perfect example of this disparity, something a study would have a hard time finding participants for, is my experience with Game of Thrones. Before I started watching the show a newspaper article spoiled the Ned Stark decapitation [Sorry! I warned you!] for me. I started watching shortly thereafter and this spoiler ended up giving me a whole different view of the first season. I could see things coming that you wouldn’t otherwise if you assumed that the noble Ned Stark would get out of all this trouble he seemed to be finding himself in. I think, in a way, this spoiler may have benefitted my watching experience. 3 seasons later, while I was reading the books and trying to avoid spoilers for the books and show at the same time, a Google Search of “How does Rob Lowe look so young?” turned dark, autocorrecting to “How does Robb Stark die?”. Unlike my first spoiler this one completely marred my experience of reading that part in the book and then watching it in the show. It was not only expected but I was annoyed by the whole thing, watching all the poor decisions being made, knowing what would happen. [END OF SPOILERS FOR GAME OF THRONES]

All in all I think there is definitely something to be said about spoilers not “ruining” stories, but I don’t think they help the story be enjoyed in all cases either. Unravelling that key plot point just before the movie does not mean you should get up and leave but if you can keep the secret you might just form a stronger connection to whatever it is you’re passionate about, even if it’s just finding out the final four words of Gilmore Girls.

So good luck in this spoiler-heavy world and may Google autocorrect always be your friend.

Netflix knows how important it is to limit spoilers… so they made buttons

References: Leavitt, Jonathan D., and Nicholas JS Christenfeld. “Story spoilers don’t spoil stories.” Psychological science 22.9 (2011): 1152-1154.


2 thoughts on “The Science Behind Spoilers

Add yours

  1. Well Done Liz, Spoilers never ruined a movie or show for me really. If the story or world they are intending to creating is mesmerizing enough im in.

    Knowing Dumbledor died from reading the book, did in no way ruin the movie experience for me. I watch the movies to get lost in that world and they achieve it. A fun twist or unexpected turn is just a bonus as far as im concerned.


  2. I basically agree. Some kinds of storytelling devices, like twist endings, need to stay spoiler free to be truly effective, but for the most part it isn’t about WHAT happens, but instead HOW it happens. It’s part of why you never get across what you love about a story when you’re explaining it to someone afterward.


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