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Psychological Science
http://pss.sagepub.com/content/early/2011/08/09/0956797611417007
The online version of this article can be found at:
DOI: 10.1177/0956797611417007
published online 12 August 2011Psychological Science
Jonathan D. Leavitt and Nicholas J. S. Christenfeld
Story Spoilers Don't Spoil Stories
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DOI: 10.1177/0956797611417007
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Stories are a universal element of human culture, the backbone
of the billion-dollar entertainment industry, and the medium
through which religion and societal values are transmitted.
The enjoyment of fiction through books, television, and mov-
ies may depend, in part, on the psychological experience of
suspense. Spoilers give away endings before stories begin, and
may thereby diminish suspense and impair enjoyment; indeed,
as the term suggests, readers go to considerable lengths to
avoid prematurely discovering endings. Transportation, a dis-
tinct form of story engagement associated with vivid imagery
and enhanced enjoyment (Green, Brock, & Kaufman, 2004),
is highly associated with suspense via close attention to the
unfolding plot and interest in how it will be resolved (Tal-Or
& Cohen, 2010). However, people’s ability to reread stories
with undiminished pleasure, and to read stories in which the
genre strongly implies the ending, suggests that suspense
regarding the outcome may not be critical to enjoyment and
may even impair pleasure by distracting attention from a
story’s relevant details and aesthetic qualities. In complex sto-
ries, developments hazy in their implications on first read are
readily understood when the narrative is revisited, and nervous
stirrings of uncertainty may become warm anticipation of
coming events once the story is laid bare.
Reading a story with foreknowledge of its outcome may be
analogous to perceptual fluency, in which perceived objects are
processed with ease, an experience that is associated with aes-
thetic pleasure (Reber, Schwarz, & Winkielman, 2004), positive
affect (Winkielman & Cacioppo, 2001), and story engagement
(Vaughn, Childs, Maschinski, Niño, & Ellsworth, 2010).
Schema discrepancy theory suggests that increased predictabil-
ity can result in increased positivity of affective response,
although this effect is dependent on initial level of uncertainty
(MacDowell & Mandler, 1989). Thus, despite intuitive beliefs
about the effects of spoilers, there are plausible theoretical rea-
sons to think they may not ruin the pleasure of reading a story.
Their actual effect remains unknown. We conducted three
experiments, each with stories from a different, distinct genre,
to test the effects of spoilers on enjoyment.
Method
Participants (176 male, 643 female) were recruited from the
psychology subject pool at the University of California, San
Diego. They took part in three experiments in which they read
three different sorts of short stories―ironic-twist stories, mys-
teries, and more evocative literary stories. For each story, we
created a spoiler paragraph that briefly discussed the story and
revealed the outcome in a way that seemed inadvertent. These
paragraphs were designed so that they could work as either
independent text or the openings of the stories (as though the
stories were intrinsically spoiled).
Each experiment included four stories selected from anthol-
ogies. Each subject read three of these stories, one spoiled
(with the spoiler paragraph presented before the story), one
unspoiled (with the story presented without alteration), and
one in which the spoiler paragraph was incorporated as the
opening paragraph. Story, order, and condition were counter-
balanced such that each story was presented with equal fre-
quency across positions and conditions. Each version of each
story was read and rated for enjoyment (on a 10-point scale
ranging from 1, lowest rating, to 10, best rating) by at least 30
subjects. The stories were by such authors as John Updike,
Roald Dahl, Anton Chekhov, Agatha Christie, and Raymond
Carver, and ranged from 1,381 to 4,220 words. Subjects indi-
cated whether they had read any story previously, and if they
had, their data for that story (< 3% of ratings) were excluded
from analyses. Subjects were also provided the opportunity to
respond freely about each story.
Results
For all three experiments, analyses of variance revealed a sig-
nificant effect of condition. (In order to control for variability
between stories, we analyzed the data by comparing different
versions of the same story.) Subjects significantly preferred
spoiled over unspoiled stories in the case of both the ironic-
twist stories (6.20 vs. 5.79), p = .013, Cohen’s d = 0.18, and
the mysteries (7.29 vs. 6.60), p = .001, d = 0.34. The evocative
stories were appreciated less overall, likely because of their
more expressly literary aims, but subjects again significantly
preferred spoiled over unspoiled versions (5.50 vs. 5.03),
Corresponding Author:
Jonathan D. Leavitt, Department of Psychology, University of California,
San Diego, 9500 Gilman Dr., La Jolla, CA 92093
E-mail: jleavitt@ucsd.edu
Story Spoilers Don’t Spoil Stories
Jonathan D. Leavitt and Nicholas J. S. Christenfeld
University of California, San Diego
Received 4/4/11; Revision accepted 5/26/11
Short Report
Psychological Science OnlineFirst, published on August 12, 2011 as doi:10.1177/0956797611417007
by Nicholas Christenfeld on August 31, 2011pss.sagepub.comDownloaded from
2 Leavitt, Christenfeld
p = .019, d = 0.22. In all three story types, incorporating spoiler
texts into stories had no effect on how much they were liked,
ps > .4. Subjects also did not indicate in their free responses
that they found these altered beginnings out of place or jarring.
Figure 1 shows the ratings for the spoiled and unspoiled ver-
sions of each story.
Conclusions
Writers use their artistry to make stories interesting, to engage
readers, and to surprise them, but we found that giving away
these surprises makes readers like stories better. This was true
whether the spoiler revealed a twist at the end (e.g., that the
condemned man’s daring escape is just a fantasy as the rope
snaps taut around his neck) or solved the crime (e.g., Poirot
discovers that the apparent target of attempted murder was in
fact the perpetrator). It was also true when the spoiler was
more poetic, as when frisky adolescents watching a couple
struggle with a baby are revealed to be previewing their own
futures, and the couple glimpsing their own pasts. In all these
types of stories, spoilers may allow readers to organize devel-
opments, anticipate the implications of events, and resolve
ambiguities that occur in the course of reading.
It is possible that spoilers enhance enjoyment by actually
increasing tension. Knowing the ending of Oedipus Rex may
heighten the pleasurable tension caused by the disparity in
knowledge between the omniscient reader and the character
marching to his doom. This notion is consistent with the assertion
that stories can be reread with no diminution of suspense
(Carroll, 1996). Although our results suggest that people
are wasting their time avoiding spoilers, our data do not
suggest that authors err by keeping things hidden. Stories
that open by revealing outcomes may lead readers to antici-
pate additional revelations at the end; in other words, readers
do not expect a story to provide complete premature knowledge
of its ending the way an external source might. Indeed, it
was only spoilers external to the stories that enhanced
readers’ delight; there was no benefit to our editing the stories
themselves.
Erroneous intuitions about the nature of spoilers may per-
sist because individual readers are unable to compare spoiled
and unspoiled experiences of a novel story. Other intuitions
about suspense may be similarly wrong: Perhaps birthday
presents are better when wrapped in cellophane, and engage-
ment rings when not concealed in chocolate mousse.
Declaration of Conflicting Interests
The authors declared that they had no conflicts of interest with
respect to their authorship or the publication of this article.
References
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Green, M. C., Brock, T. C., & Kaufman, G. F. (2004). Understand-
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“A Dark Brown Dog”
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Fig. 1. Hedonic ratings of the individual spoiled and unspoiled stories. Error bars represent standard
errors.
by Nicholas Christenfeld on August 31, 2011pss.sagepub.comDownloaded from
Story Spoilers Don’t Spoil Stories 3
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by Nicholas Christenfeld on August 31, 2011pss.sagepub.comDownloaded from
... Often, however, this assumption is rather implausible. As an illustration, let us consider D&R's empirical example of story spoilers (Leavitt & Christenfeld, 2011) where the dependent variable X was a rating for enjoyment of reading a story from a specific genre (e.g., a mystery story). The assumption of independent true scores implies that an individual's true enjoyment of reading a spoiled version of a story is independent of the enjoyment of reading an unspoiled version. ...
... However, the proportion q* is better suited for making assumptions about the amount of heterogeneity assumed by a psychological theory because theories usually focus on the existence, direction, and size of effects (i.e., the contrast between conditions). To make this specific, the theory about story spoilers by Leavitt and Christenfeld (2011) states that some individuals prefer spoiled over nonspoiled stories. However, it is not of interest whether individuals differ in their general preferences for a specific genre (e.g., whether individuals generally like or dislike crime stories). ...
... The vector δ = (δ 1 , : : : , δ k ) T refers to the true effects of an individual for the k predictions of a theory. For instance, in D&R's example "story spoilers don't spoil stories" (Leavitt & Christenfeld, 2011), the parameter δ i refers to the true preference of an individual for spoiled versus nonspoiled stories in the ith genre (e.g., mysteries). If all predicted effects are in the positive direction, the proportion of individuals described by all predictions of a theory is defined as the probability that all components of the random vector δ are larger than zero (i.e., δ i > 0 for all i = 1, : : : , k). ...
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Davis-Stober and Regenwetter (2019; D&R) showed that even when all predictions of a theory hold in separate studies, not even a single individual may be described by all predictions jointly. To illustrate this "paradox" of converging evidence, D&R derived upper and lower bounds on the proportion of individuals for whom all predictions of a theory hold. These bounds reflect extreme positive and negative stochastic dependence of individual differences across predictions. However, psychological theories often make more specific assumptions such as true individual differences being independent or positively correlated (e.g., due to a common underlying trait). Based on this psychometric perspective, I extend D&R's conceptual framework by developing a multivariate normal model of individual effects. Assuming perfect consistency (i.e., a correlation of one) of individual effects across predictions, the proportion of individuals described by all predictions of a theory is identical to D&R's upper bound. The proportion drops substantially when assuming independence of individual effects. However, irrespective of the assumed correlation structure, the multivariate normal model implies a lower bound that is strictly above D&R's lower bound if a theory makes at least three predictions. Hence, the scope of a theory can be improved by specifying whether individual effects are assumed to show a certain level of consistency across predictions (similar to a trait) or whether they are statistically independent (similar to a state). (PsycInfo Database Record (c) 2021 APA, all rights reserved).
... Intuitively, many people believe that learning the end of a narrative will "spoil" the experiencein other words, that foreknowledge of a narrative's conclusion will automatically reduce one's enjoyment of the story. However, while some research has shown that spoilers can indeed decrease enjoyment of a narrative (e.g., Rosenbaum & Johnson, 2016), other research has found the opposite (Ellithorpe & Brookes, 2018;Leavitt & Christenfeld, 2011. To explore reasons for this contradiction, recent work has begun to examine circumstances in which exposure to spoilers might be less detrimental and could in fact augment people's narrative experiences. ...
... Extant work has produced contradictory findings regarding the impact that spoilers have on fluency. On the one hand, some research has failed to find a connection between spoilers and processing fluency (e.g., Johnson & Rosenbaum, 2018;Johnson et al., 2020) However, on the other hand, advance knowledge of a narrative arc, or spoilers, has also been shown to enhance enjoyment due to its ability to increase this processing fluency (Ellithorpe & Brookes, 2018;Leavitt & Christenfeld, 2011. This has been attributed to mental model resonance, a process wherein previous information about a narrative is incorporated into people's mental model about that narrative. ...
... The same fluency that can be the result of spoilers and satisfied expectations and which has been linked to enjoyment (e.g., Ellithorpe & Brookes, 2018;Leavitt & Christenfeld, 2011) may also influence other factors related to narrative involvement such as identification and transportation. Though no studies to date have empirically examined such effects, research has found that processing fluency can impact character-related emotions in the form of parasocial breakup distress (Ellithorpe & Brookes, 2018), and high levels of processing fluency has been associated with a positive affective response (Dragojevic & Giles, 2016). ...
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Although spoilers are commonly believed to ruin experience of a story, recent research has produced conflicting results about the role spoilers play in enjoyment. In response, scholars have begun to explore factors that impact the relationship between spoilers and narrative experience. The current study seeks to extend research that has examined the relationship between spoilers and processing fluency by examining how expectations regarding a narrative’s ending can interact with spoilers to affect fluency and the resulting narrative experience. An online between-subjects experiment exposed participants (n= 96) to a spoiled or unspoiled preview and assigned them to watch the season finale of a long-running sitcom, exposing them to either the original, expectation-defying ending or an alternate ending that aligned with genre conventions. Results reveal that spoilers seem to improve fluency when a narrative ending is unexpected. Additionally, fluency was associated with greater enjoyment, character identification, and transportation into the narrative.
... We might extend such findings to narrative consumption, explaining why individuals turn to known stories or story-types as a form of affect management. For example, it has been shown that suspense does not fully disappear when the outcome is known, such as in the phenomenon known as the paradox of suspense (Smuts, 2009;Gerrig, 1997;Carroll, 2001;Leavitt & Christenfeld, 2011;Daniel & Katz, 2019). The presence of suspense, even in known narratives, indicates that re-consuming known stories may not be focused on specific gains in information but on changing the contours of what Nabi and Green (2015) call a narrative's emotional flow. ...
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