Spoilers have been around as long as movies themselves, but in today's pop culture landscape, the rules around them have become more aggressive than ever before. People are constantly talking about the perils of spoiling entertainment like Game of Thrones or Mother! before others have seen them, and more and more rules are getting put into place about when is too soon for revealing a movie or TV show's secrets. But perhaps we shouldn't be so worried; contrary to popular belief, research says that knowing key parts of a story doesn't ruin the experience —it actually can increase your enjoyment.
Of course, there are plenty of people out there who hate spoilers, but for a lot of us, knowing plot points ahead of time can often be a good thing and affect whether or not we go see a piece of entertainment. Just take what happened with mother!; as the movie's F CinemaScore rating shows, plenty of people probably wished they knew what they were getting themselves into before seeing the disturbing movie, which featured several scenes of violence against women and children, among other horrors. Some viewers considered the movie's marketing to be misleading, and likely wished they'd known plot specifics before buying their tickets to a film that ended up being more psychological thriller than horror.
According to a study by Nicholas Christenfeld for UC San Diego in 2011, knowing spoilers doesn't necessarily ruin the psychological experience of storytelling for consumers, but can enhance it. This is due to the fact that when we stay engaged because we don't know what happens next, the tension actually detracts from our enjoyment.
But thanks to the recent rise of on-demand services and social media, avoiding key details about a TV show or movie is harder than ever before. The additions of studios like Netflix, Amazon, and other streaming services have created a platform of press, play and repeat, where it's practically impossible not to be spoiled if you don't watch something immediately. But, said Christenfeld, maybe that's OK.
“The point is, really we're not watching these things for the ending,” said Christenfeld in a 2016 article published by University of California News. “I point out to the skeptics, people watch these movies more than once happily, and often with increasing pleasure.”
In Christenfeld's experiment for his study, his team of researchers had subjects read short stories from various genres. One group read a story and at the end, rated how much they liked it. The other group did exactly the same thing, but researchers spoiled the narrative (as if it were by accident), by giving the group a short introduction. Christenfeld made sure to repeat the experiment with three different genres: mystery stories that contained a suspenseful moment, stories with ironic twists or surprise endings, and literary fiction with intense resolutions.
“Across all three genres, spoilers actually were enhancers," said Christenfeld in the article. “When people go to see Romeo and Juliet,’they don't think, ‘Don't tell me how it ends!' All's Well That Ends Well? That one ends well. So there isn't any thought that with these great works of fiction, knowing the ending is going to ruin them.”
However, there's some research that disagrees with this notion. LiveScience reports that in a 2015 study, Benjamin Johnson, an assistant professor of communication science at VU University Amsterdam in the Netherlands, found that spoilers may not ruin an experience entirely, but can reduce suspense and decrease overall enjoyment. The study asked 412 university students to read different short stories they had never previously heard or seen, and before reading, the students were given summaries that included spoilers. The students then rated the stories, describing whether or not they found them engaging, moving, and suspenseful.
"What we expected was to see that some outcomes would be improved by spoilers, in keeping with the earlier study. Instead, we surprisingly found that for all the outcomes, spoilers were detrimental," Johnson told LiveScience. Instead, the study actually showed that stories that had been "spoiled" were rated as less moving, less thought provoking, and less successful at drawing the reader into an experience than those that weren't.
So what do these contradictory reports mean, exactly? Well, regardless of the research, it still stands that the benefits of spoilers are subjective to personal preferences and expectations. Every person knows better than anyone else how they enjoy stories best; one person may find that knowing spoilers helps them enjoy movies more, for instance, while another might not want to know little to nothing about a TV show before going in. Furthermore, there are other people who only care about spoilers for stories they feel invested in, but don't mind them at other times.
All these views are valid, and we should all all be respectful of each other's choices. Whether you love spoilers or hate them, it's all about compromise, and as long as we don't go out of our way to ruin a piece of entertainment's plot points for others, then we can coexist peacefully no matter what we think about spoilers.