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Knowing The Butler Did It Doesn’t Spoil The Fun

Audio

Aired 8/26/11

Has anyone ever told you the ending of a movie or book and spoiled it for you? A recent study out of UCSD finds that spoilers actually improve the experience of reading a book or seeing a movie. KPBS arts reporter Angela Carone says the findings are an affirmation for some, while others find the results downright criminal.

The Fox animated series "Family Guy" developed a t-shirt with the "Star Wars" spoiler alert, featuring the character of Stewie as Darth Vader.
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Above: The Fox animated series "Family Guy" developed a t-shirt with the "Star Wars" spoiler alert, featuring the character of Stewie as Darth Vader.

By now most people know that Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker's father. For those that didn’t….Oops! Spoiler.

According to a recent UCSD study, I actually didn’t ruin the "Star Wars" franchise for you. By spoiling this major plot point, I’ve actually improved your chances of enjoying it.

Nicholas Christenfeld is a professor of psychology at UCSD and co-authored the spoiler study. He says, 'knowing that Hamlet dies doesn’t ruin it because one can still be deeply involved and say 'No, no! Don’t do that, step back.'”

Christenfeld says the study revealed, "If you give a group of people a story to read, you enhance their enjoyment by telling them the end of the story beforehand."

Christenfeld says you can generalize his findings to our experience of movies. Take the movie "The Usual Suspects." According to Christenfeld and his study, we would actually enjoy "The Usual Suspects" more if we knew who Keyser Soze was from the beginning, instead of having it revealed in a surprise ending.

I don’t know about you, but this seems hard to believe. It’s counterintuitive.

"Intuition, of course, is a funny standard, because you see some surprising results and you think 'that seems funny to me, I choose not to believe it.' But one really should be responsive to data," says Christenfeld.

In this case, the data are the responses of hundreds of undergraduate students. They were given short stories to read, some with spoilers and some without. The spoilers weren’t identified as spoilers, they were just inserted into the story. They then rated their enjoyment of those stories. It turns out, the study participants enjoyed the stories more if they had spoilers in them.

Linda Tonnesen does not like spoilers. She’s a book buyer at Mysterious Galaxy, a San Diego bookstore that specializes in mysteries, science fiction and fantasy. For her, spoilers destroy her ability to escape into a fictional world. "I like to get immersed in the book and anything that takes me out of that takes away from the joy of reading."

Jim Stewart is an avid reader who loves spoilers. He works at Warwick's bookstore in La Jolla. Stewart is one of those people you hear about, who reads the last page of a book before starting it. He says,"The anxiety of having to wait to find out what happens to this character is always so frustrating, so I want to find out if they live or die."

Nicholas Christenfeld said after the study was published, he heard from people like Stewart who’ve long been criticized for reading the end of book before they begin it. "They’ve all sent us really grateful emails saying 'Thank you. Everyone said I was crazy and now I know I’m not.'"

Alain Cohen is a French film professor at UCSD. He tells his students if they want to enjoy a film, they should watch the end first.

Cohen says if we know the ending of a movie like "Taxi Driver," then we can focus on other things. And it’s those other things that make it a great film. Cohen expains, "I think a spoiler enhances your perception, your senses, your concept, your understanding, because you know where you are being led so you pay attention to the smell of the roses, the décor. You pay attention to the acting."

Perhaps this whole debate needs a cost-benefit analysis. If you really value the surprise when the killer is revealed, then avoid spoilers. But if you like to savor the beautiful prose, a spoiler might help you savor it all the more.

Study author Nicholas Christenfeld: "Focus on plot may get you this tiny little satisfaction with the last sentence. But that may have cost you all during it, an appreciation of the other things. And it seems that for most people these other things outweigh that tiny satisfaction of knowing the ending."

So the next time friends inadvertently give away the ending to a book or movie, go easy on them. You might enjoy the book even more when it comes with a spoiler.

Comments

Avatar for user 'tobeq'

tobeq | August 31, 2011 at 8:22 a.m. ― 2 years, 11 months ago

I was watching Dexter on DVD so after the season ended. A friend thought I was watching it live. She said "I can't believe ___ died" It was a major character. While I still enjoyed the season, i did not like knowing the ending.

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