This likely isn’t much of a spoiler to most serious fans of movies and novels (I’m looking at you, fellow Star Wars fans!), but recent research suggests that spoilers hurt the story experience. No duh, right? Well, this newer study flies in the face of findings from a 2011 study that suggested the exact opposite.
The new study was done by Benjamin Johnson of Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam and Judith Rosenbaum of Albany State University, and published in Communication Research‘s Dec 2015 issue. They looked into whether or not spoilers ruin an entertainment experience by having 412 university students read short stories. Everyone participating had never before read his or her assigned short story. Some had the story spoiled prior to reading, and some didn’t. After reading, participants were asked to rate the reading experience.
“What we expected was to see that some outcomes would be improved by spoilers, in keeping with the earlier study,” Johnson told Live Science. “Instead, we surprisingly found that for all the outcomes, spoilers were detrimental.”
In the new study, stories that had been “spoiled” were rated as less moving, less thought provoking, and less successful at drawing the reader into a narrative world and providing an immersive experience. In fact, the effects of story spoilers were “consistently negative,” Johnson said in a statement.
When people don’t know how a story will play out, the storytelling experience is more satisfying. This is something that many storytellers are keenly aware of. J.J. Abrams and others behind the seventh entry into the film Star Wars saga, The Force Awakens, implemented an unprecedented level of secrecy around the movie, so as to not spoil the movie-going experience for fans; and I seem to recall author JK Rowling expressing her aggravation with media outlets that spoiled some major scenes in her final Potter novel.
As I said above, what makes this study really interesting is that the previous study, published in Psychological Science’s August 2011 issue, came to an entirely different conclusion. Titled “Story Spoilers Don’t Spoil Stories,” Nicholas Christenfeld and Jonathan Leavitt of U.C. San Diego’s psychology department found that, quoting U.C. San Diego News Center’s Inga Kiderra, “subjects significantly preferred the spoiled versions of ironic-twist stories, where, for example, it was revealed before reading that a condemned man’s daring escape is all a fantasy before the noose snaps tight around his neck.”
From a BBC News article:
Prof Christenfeld said this suggested people may enjoy a good story as much as a good twist at the end, and even if they know the outcome, will enjoy the journey as much as the destination. He added in many cases, a book or film can be re-read or seen multiple times and still be enjoyable.
This is why Johnson was able to boast: “Our study is the first to show that people’s widespread beliefs about spoilers being harmful are actually well-founded and not a myth.”
So what to make of the vastly different findings between the 2011 study into spoilers, and the 2015 study? The question is brought up in a release from Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. According to the release, “Johnson and Rosenbaum attribute the competing results to differences in how enjoyment is understood and measured.”