BREAKING NEWS: Spoilers Benefit Stories

Spoiler Alert: The wolf could not blow down the house of the third little pig.

When my niece was about 4, I gave her an awesome birthday present. I don’t recall what it was, but I know it was awesome. Why? Because I remember that she kept putting it back in the box, holding the wrapping paper around it, and reopening it so that she could re-live the glorious moment when she first opened the present.

Most likely due to the no-spoiler policy of Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilliam, the media has been abuzz with the heightened controversy surrounding spoilers.

And so a 2011 study regarding spoilers’ effect on the power of stories has resurfaced. You may have missed it the first time around, when every news source in the universe (ie America) covered it. It was conducted at the University of California San Diego by Professor Nicholas Christenfeld and then PhD candidate Jonathan Leavitt. They concluded that spoilers enhance the reader’s enjoyment of a story.

The quotes below (in italics) are from the researchers themselves, mostly Christenfeld, as presented in the 2011 Association of Psychological Science ‘s  press release and picked up by the media.

The Purpose of the Research

The study was about how people process stories. The conclusion of the research is that readers enjoy stories more when they read the endings first because they can relax and appreciate the finer parts of the story.  This is how the researchers put it:


Don’t worry, Bambi makes friends, grows up and gets married.
The matador doesn't fight Ferdinand. He sends the bull back to small the flowers.
It will be ok! The matador doesn’t fight Ferdinand. Now you are free to appreciate the pictures.


Once you know how it turns out, it’s cognitively easier – you’re more comfortable processing the information – and can focus on a deeper understanding of the story.



How they figured it out

Here’s how the study went down: The researchers gave their subjects three types of short stories to read: ones that are mysteries, ones with ironic twists and ones that are “literary” (whatever that means).  Then they placed a spoiler paragraph as a preface, within the beginning of the text and nowhere in the text (left the story as is).

There were 30 subjects, all college students. Yes, college students, that bleary-eyed sub-species that comprises those who are sleep deprived, over-worked, and, in many cases, hung over. And yes, only 30 of them. The press release states that the stories the students read were classics by the likes of John Updike, Roald Dahl, Anton Chekhov, Agatha Christie and Raymond Carver.


Except for Roald Dahl, not compelling reading to your average college student. Not contemporary, so they might not relate to them. I mean, is it really unusual for college kids to be “cognitively comfortable” with knowing the end of a story that they have no interest in reading?

I challenge these guys to use contemporary fiction that these students can relate to. Tell them the ending and then duck when they take a slug at you.

Here’s a compelling conclusion by Christenfeld:

Plots are just excuses for great writing. What the plot is is (almost) irrelevant. The pleasure is in the writing.


 Since the sentence does not end with an explanation point, I am taking it at face value. And so I pose these questions to the researchers:

Have you ever read a book? seen a movie? listened to other people talk about their day?

I know they have walked into an art museum because they likened their findings to the appreciation of fine art:

“Monet’s paintings aren’t really about water lilies,” he [Christenfeld] said.

Now THAT’S funny!

It’s impressionism, for God’s sake!

Apparently the researchers have become a little too full of themselves. Get a load of this:

Well now that writers now know how to write their stories—with the ending first—don’t look to Christenfeld and Leavitt for more guidance….The researchers are careful to note that they do not have a new recipe for writers to follow.

EEEEEEEEEEK!  (Consider this a metaphor for pulling my hair out.)

Is that meant to be funny?

It’s no big deal. Someone will develop a program that allows us to systematically move the last two pages in a book or the last scene in a movie to the very beginning.

What’s Next for Christenfeld and Leavitt?

To learn of their plans for future research, read the next post.

And here it comes, ladies and gents—another brilliant conclusion. Again, it’s pithy and light, but there is no exclamation point anywhere near this quote–so I think it may not be a joke, but I’m honestly not sure. This is what the researchers say:

Perhaps birthday presents are better when wrapped in cellophane, and engagement rings are better when not concealed in chocolate mousse.

Let me tell you something. SAVE POISON (and poop for those of you who have read/seen The Help), everything is better in chocolate!

By the way, does anyone know someone who proposed by hiding a diamond ring in food? Have these guys seen too many movies?

Back to the anecdote I relayed in the previous post about my niece trying to re-live that moment of joy when she kept re-opening my present. Listen to this statement in the press release:

The overall findings are consistent with the experience most of us have had: A favorite tale can be re-read multiple times with undiminished pleasure. A beloved movie can be watched again and again.


For God’s sake, people, don’t disrespect the movies we watch over and over; they were my children’s babysitters.

But watching and rewatching movies prove that people dig spoilers?

I think not.


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