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Spoilers good for the soul, says science

Spoilers good for the soul, says science (photo)

SPOILER for the following post: A University of California, San Diego study finds that people enjoy books more when they know the ending.

Disgruntled bloggers are a little less gruntled this week, since learning the news that a University of California, San Diego study finds what many of them have argued for years: that ruining the ends of film or TV plots don’t actually spoil anything. In fact, they may enhance the enjoyment. Here’s an excerpt from the U of C’s findings, as quoted on MSNBC.com:

In an experiment, researchers gave away the endings for three different kinds of short stories — those with an ironic twist ending, mysteries and tales Leavitt calls “more evocative literary stories.” These were real short stories by authors such as John Updike, Roald Dahl, Anton Chekhov, Agatha Christie and Raymond Carver; none of the 30 undergrad study participants had read these stories before… people “significantly preferred” the spoiled versions of the ironic twist stories and the mysteries. (The so-called evocative stories were less appreciated in general, “likely due to their more expressly literary aims,” [study author Jonathan] Leavitt writes. No spoiler alert needed there.) But in all three kinds of short stories, people like the texts with the spoilers worked into the opening graphs about as much as they liked the unspoiled texts.

According to Leavitt, spoilers “may allow readers to organize developments in the story, anticipate the implications of events, and resolve ambiguities that occur in the course of reading.” In other words, if, like most human beings of adult age, you know that “Planet of the Apes” is set (UNSCIENTIFIC SPOILER ALERT) on Earth before you watch the movie, you’ll spend the film looking for clues to that fact throughout the narrative. This provides an interesting argument for why spoiler warnings are unnecessary: spoiled endings essentially make us more active readers (or viewers) and a more active reader is generally a more satisfied reader.

It’s all interesting stuff, and as someone who’s always argued that writers should be allowed to spoil stuff in their writing (with appropriate warning), it’s nice food for thought. But here’s where the study loses me a little (sorry, science). It concludes that “perhaps birthday presents are better when wrapped in cellophane, and engagement rings are better when not concealed in chocolate mousse.” It’s a conclusion delivered with tongue firmly in cheek, but it made me think of my wife, who demanded that my engagement proposal be a total surprise, and who adores surprise parties and surprises in general. If I’d giving her a engagement ring that hadn’t been concealed in (my case proverbial) chocolate mousse, I’d say there’s a decent chance she would have turned me down, at least until I came up with a more clever way to propose. I, on the other hand, hate surprises. If you’re throwing me a party, I better know about it in advance.

Which got me to wondering: what if different people are wired differently in regards to spoilers? The U of C’s study’s sample size was just 30 undergraduate students, not very large at all. If they’d performed the same test on 300 students, would the results be the same? I have a feeling if I’d been a subject of the experiment, I would have voted in line with its findings. But if my wife had been a subject, she probably wouldn’t have. She likes surprises too much to enjoy them being spoiled.

What if there is something in our DNA that makes us more curious about — or wary of — spoilers? Could it be hereditary? I seem to get my own aversion to surprises from my mother, who has always claimed if we ever threw her a surprise party she would turn around and walk out. U of C needs to dig even deeper into this, and search for a genetic link regarding spoilers. Maybe there’s a spoiler gene inside us. And maybe it’s shaped like the Statue of Liberty. Science, it’s up to you to find out.

Do you buy the university’s study? Tell us in the comments below or on Facebook and Twitter.

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