Did Scientists Prove that Spoilers Make You Enjoy a Movie More?

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I could have also opened this video by actually spoiling a hot new movie, like the Rise of Skywalker or whatever, but I promise I will not do that. First of all, because I haven’t seen it yet, and second of all, because that’s a dick way to make a point but you’d be surprised at how many articles did it anyway.

Anyway, this research comes to us courtesy of psychologists at UC San Diego, where professor Nicholas Christenfeld gave a bunch of subjects short stories to read. For half of those subjects, he “accidentally” spoiled the ending when introducing them to it. The other half just got to read it through with fresh eyes. Even with stories that were whodunnits, or contained ironic twists, the readers who were “spoiled” found the stories significantly more enjoyable. Even when the researchers stopped the subjects halfway through the reading, the spoiled group was enjoying the story more.

This is, obviously, shocking and upsetting to many people. In the age of the internet, spoilers are dangerous things that many if not most people avoid at all costs. I have a very personal relationship with spoilers, myself: if I know I want to see a film or read a book, I will avoid any previews or reviews or other information about it. I’m going to see it anyway, so I know I don’t need to be sold on it, so I’d rather just go in completely fresh. That said, if I do know the “twist” or ending to a piece, it generally doesn’t stop me from watching or reading because I have always steadfastly held that if a work of art is only worthwhile due to a plot twist, it’s not worth my time. I’m looking for well-craft characters, good dialogue, immersive sound and music, or at least, at the very least, Jason Momoa with his shirt off. No spoiler can ruin those things.

But I appreciate that other people are much more concerned about spoilers and they view spoilers as completely ruining their enjoyment of things, which is why when men send me nasty messages I used to send them Game of Thrones spoilers in response. This was back when the show was good, of course. I had read all the books so I knew what was coming. A man would write, “I hope you get raped by illegal immigrants” and I would say “CHARACTER X is going to kill CHARACTER Y with a crossbow while he sits on the toilet, probably in next week’s episode.” Then the man would block me and I would be filled with a holy light of justice that is the closest I’ve ever come to knowing what Joan of Arc must have experienced.

I saw this study pop up on the r/science subreddit and it was kind of hilarious because almost immediately it got downvoted to the very depths of hell. It’s currently at 0, which is the lowest they will even show. The science subreddit is usually pretty good in that only bad or old and useless science links get downvoted, and off-topic discussion is minimal. So I read through the comments to see if people had critiques for the study and…nope! Pretty much every comment was just someone saying “This is wrong because I hate spoilers and they ruin things for me.”

That’s…not science. In fact, those people are only confirming what this study says, which is that most people say spoilers ruin their enjoyment. And then when tested, those people actually enjoy things more when they’re spoiled. That’s fun science, when something we all thought was one way is actually another way. It’s like, research shows that sugar does not make children more hyperactive. You can downvote that as much as your little downvote finger can handle because you saw some kids running around after they had cake at a birthday party, but that doesn’t actually mean that you accurately assessed that situation and the scientists who study sugar’s effects on the bodies for a living are wrong and dumb.

So am I saying I think that everyone would be better off if everything were spoiled? No. I’m just saying if you’re going to argue about a scientific paper, bring some fucking reason to the table. Allow me.

I do not doubt that the researchers achieved the results they say they achieved. But I do think there are some issues that bear keeping in mind.

First of all, the minor but obvious issue: these people weren’t choosing what book to read or movie to watch. They had to read a short story for a study, so having it spoiled did not affect whether or not they would choose to spend their time and energy on it. If you are “spoiled,” you are going to be more choosy of whether or not you’re going to actually see something. As a fucking hilarious example, allow me to show you one of my new all-time favorite comments on Reddit: this user, with 23 upvotes, saying “I haven’t seen Citizen Kane, but I know what Rosebud is. That’s why I won’t bother watching it now.” Like, imagine valuing spoilers so much that you refuse to watch what is widely (correctly or not) considered the GREATEST PIECE OF CINEMA IN HUMAN HISTORY because you already know that Rosebud is the name of his fucking sled. Please print this comment on my gravestone, it’s that good.

So yeah, spoilers may ruin things for people simply because they make a person decide that’s the only thing that was worth seeing about a work and so they avoid it. That means something.

Second, let’s say I offer you a choice between two types of experiences, A and B. Also let’s say I’m an omniscient deity, for reasons. I tell you two things about these experiences:

First of all, you will like B slightly better than A. 

Second of all, if you choose experience “A” you can later try experience “B” as well. But if you choose experience “B”, you will never be able to try “A” and you can only try “B” for the rest of eternity.

Which would you choose? Me? I’d choose A, because I’m a curious person and also I derive additional enjoyment from exposing myself to a diversity of experiences. I enjoy reading books more than I enjoy playing video games, but I enjoy doing both of those things more than I would enjoy only ever reading books and never being able to play video games. Get what I’m saying?

My point is this: there is only one chance for you to experience a book, film, podcast, video game, or song for the first time. And that experience will always be a different kind of enjoyment than the one you get from revisiting those things later. Yes, later you can appreciate the finer details of how a writer or director gets us from point A to point B. You can pick out the Easter eggs, you can really soak in more than you did the first time. But that first time will always have a special place in your heart. If someone were to weigh your total enjoyment, in a utilitarian sense, they might find that scientifically you enjoyed The Sixth Sense more on your second watch. After all, the first time around maybe you thought it was just a standard horror/suspense film, so you weren’t all that keen until BAM, you realize how great it is. And the second time you had a blast picking out all those little things that you can’t believe you missed the first time around, and it’s just so satisfying watching it all come together. But there’s something special and wonderful about that first time.

And that reminds me of a phrase I’ve heard often and even used myself recently: damn, I envy you for getting to enjoy this for the first time. A friend said it to me when he introduced me to John Roderick and the Long Winters. I said it recently to someone about reading Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation. Sure, if someone were to have explained every detail of that book to me before I read it and stopped me in the middle and gauged my enjoyment and compared it to someone who hadn’t been spoiled, I may have rated it higher than them. But I would never have the memory of putting it all together and soaking it in step by step, and that memory has brought me a great amount of joy over the years. And that’s worth something.

As usual, I want to put out a disclaimer. I’m not saying this study is bad. It’s not! I find it very interesting how and why people find interest in a work of art. And I do think it’s worth remembering that a well-made work of art is not just about the broader plot. I would love it if this research makes people like the aforementioned Redditor reconsider whether they may have been rash in thinking Citizen Kane isn’t worth their time because they know what “Rosebud” means. Holy shit that will never stop being funny to me. I’m sorry.

That said, the headline of this study and the way it’s being represented is just wrong. This study does not tell us “Story Spoilers Don’t Spoil Stories.” And the study author even unintentionally spells it out in this University press release when he says, “People watch these movies more than once happily, and often with increasing pleasure.” You can’t increase your pleasure if you don’t start at some baseline. That most enjoyable baseline for a lot of people, myself included, is seeing it with fresh eyes. 

So keep avoiding spoilers, and keep not spoiling things for other people, if for no other reason than they don’t want you too. They can always watch it again after they’ve been spoiled by actually experiencing the film, book, or whatever the way they want.

Unless they’re sending you rape threats. Then spoil the shit out of them.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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One Comment

  1. I don’t doubt it and it makes sense. I can personally verify that sometimes knowing a bit about a story can make me want to read it/see it if I lacked interest before. And usually spoilers don’t “ruin” a work for me, but I’ve long preferred not to have them. This dates back to The Empire Strikes Back in 1980; I read the novelization before the movie came out. I dropped the book and cursed myself when I got to “No. I am your father” because how awesome would it have been to hear and see that in the film for the first time without knowing it was coming? Since then I’ve always preferred to let things unfold in the manner the author(s) of a work intended, be it novel, film, whatever (and only read the book version first if the film is based on the novel rather than the other way around!).

    Conversely, I have a friend who wants all the spoilers in advance so that she can relax and enjoy the work. This also dates back to Star Wars, Return of the Jedi this time. She was so upset by that film she’s insisted on knowing everything in advance, and like Harry Burns, reads the end of a book first. Not in case she dies before finishing, but so she knows whether it’s worth getting to the end!

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