Wednesday, March 30, 2016

"Everybody dies in the end": Does knowing the ending always spoil the fun?

Adapted from source

If you ever find yourself in the kind of situation where you (semi-) intentionally reveal the ending of a book/movie/TV show to someone who hasn’t read or seen it yet – AND if you happen to feel generally quite protective over your various body parts – there is only one sensible course of action: run. Very fast and, preferably, very far away. Unless you have revealed the ending of the Game of Thrones series, in which case you may seriously consider testing out firsthand how cozy life on other planets could be.

Indeed, the generally accepted belief is that prematurely revealing the ending or important aspects of a plot spoils the fun derived from getting to know about it yourself – hence the word “spoiler”. The act is so hateful that Internet users are expected to follow the basic courtesy of signaling beforehand the presence of spoilers in their posts. And attempts have been made to devise computer applications devoted to the automatic detection of spoilers when one is browsing the web. There are even detailed, step-by-step blog posts that help you proceed with your life after the ending of your favorite book has been spoiled.

Thus, many people are convinced that spoilers fully deserve their name. But is it truly the case? Do spoilers impact the level of pleasure derived from reading a novel or watching a football game? That’s the question fearlessly tackled by Jonathan Leavitt and Nicholas Christenfeld of the University of California in a series of recent lab studies.

Spoilers don’t necessarily ruin a story

Over 800 undergraduate students were asked to read 3 short stories of different genres (i.e., mystery, “ironic-twist”, or evocative), before rating how much they enjoyed each one on a 10-points scale. During the experiment: 

"each subject read…one spoiled [story] (with the spoiler paragraph presented before the story), one unspoiled (with the story presented with alteration), and one in which the spoiler paragraph was incorporated as the opening paragraph” 

(Leavitt & Christenfeld, 2011, p. 1152; emphasis added)

So while Participant A read the original version of an Agatha Christie’s story, Participant B read the spoiler-as-external-paragraph version instead and Participant C was presented with the spoiler-as-opening-paragraph version of the same story. 

Results are rather unexpected: Participants consistently indicated greater enjoyment for spoiled rather than unspoiled stories, regardless of the genre (although some stories were more enjoyed than others overall).

Importantly, this effect was only detected when comparing participants who read the original story and those who read the spoiler-as-external-paragraph version. Enjoyment did not differ between participants who read the spoiler-as-opening-paragraph version of the story and those who had read the original one.

“A spoiler can...make reading more satisfying”

The experiment was replicated with similar results (Leavitt & Christenfeld, 2013): Although, this time, participants had to rate their level of enjoyment halfway through the story (rather than at the end), they tended to prefer the spoiled narratives compared to the unspoiled ones. This is particularly interesting since spoilers used in the study revealed the outcome of the story (not other parts of the plot) and yet, their effect on enjoyment was already present halfway through. Thus, it seems the effect of spoilers on enjoyment isn’t (solely) related to some kind of pleasure derived from the fact that the story ended in the expected manner described in the spoiler.

More importantly, when asked to rate how difficult it was to follow the story developments, spoiled stories were perceived as easier to follow than their unspoiled counterpart. Further statistical analyses demonstrated that spoiled stories are easier to read and this easiness will in turn increase enjoyment. According to the authors, the effect is related to a mechanism of processing fluency, i.e., fluent stories are easier to process – cognitively speaking. They explain it as follows: 

“if one of the reader’s goal is to construct a coherent representation of story events that accounts for why they are mentioned in the text…then the perspective and insight afforded by a spoiler can aid in this goal and thereby make reading more satisfying

(Leavitt & Christenfeld, 2013, p. 94; emphasis added)

Thus, shockingly enough, the above findings seem to contradict what many people (and the Internet) hold to be true. So, is this the end of the story? Should we stop caring about whether others reveal to us how a movie unfolds as it would not spoil our fun but could even in fact increase it? Not so fast, recently published studies say, as they find reason to question these preliminary conclusions.


Using a similar method to the one described above, Benjamin Johnson and Judith Rosenbaum (2014) asked over 400 undergraduate students to read two stories: one that was preceded by a spoiled preview (revealing the ending of the story) and the other one preceded by an unspoiled preview (a spoiler-free summary). Afterwards, participants made various assessments regarding the level of entertainment derived from each story.

Yet, contrary to previous findings, these studies found that unspoiled stories were perceived as overall more enjoyable, moving and suspenseful than spoiled stories – even though the effects were quite small. This result fits with lay beliefs regarding spoilers’ rejection, but it bears the question: Why do present findings contradict previous experiments? The answer to this may actually boil down to individual and situational differences.

“Different people in different situations experience narrative entertainment in different ways”

Even if the rejection of spoilers could appear as a generalized and widespread attitude, this may not be truly the case. For instance, a friend of mine used to read first the ending of mystery novels and after discovering the identity of the perpetrator, she would then merrily proceed to read the story from the beginning. Similarly, people are sometimes much more invested in a particular story and are therefore more adamant about avoiding spoilers in this specific case but not for other stories they care less about. 

Hence, if you are a Star Wars fan, you may have been particularly careful about avoiding the social media before watching the last installment of the saga (and in the process, possibly lost some Facebook friends who insisted on giving away every detail as soon as they got out of the movie theatre).


Even hardcore, anti-spoilers individuals may re-read their favorite novel despite already knowing how it will unfold. And knowing the ending of the movie 300 or of any other historical fiction doesn’t necessarily reduce our willingness to watch it, nor the pleasure derived from it.

Therefore, according to Johnson and Rosenbaum (2014), “there may not be a general, universal effect of spoilers on narrative enjoyment, so it is important to consider other factors that may play a critical role (…) as different people in different situations experience narrative entertainment in different ways” (p. 15).

Spoiled v. Unspoiled Stories: 1-1

Thus, instead of wondering about the general effect of spoilers on enjoyment, it is perhaps more useful to ask what makes someone enjoy more (or less) spoiled narratives? This is what Rosenbaum and Johnson (2015) did in their most recent experiment, trying to uncover individual differences that may account for differing levels of receptivity to spoilers. And for instance they found that unspoiled stories were enjoyed more than their spoiled counterparts by individuals with a higher need for affect; i.e., a heightened “capacity and desire for emotional stimulation” (Rosenbaum & Johnson, 2015, p. 12).

A possible explanation for this lies within the excitation transfer theory: Suspense and uncertainty regarding a story outcome presumably increase arousal, and hence enjoyment, for individuals who are particularly sensitive to emotional inputs (i.e., those with higher need for affect). Thus, spoiled stories, by resolving part of the suspense, would be comparatively less pleasurable for those individuals. This will not apply to those with a lower need for affect, who would presumably crave less emotional stimulation and hence find both spoiled and unspoiled stories equally pleasurable.


It is possible that this kind of systematic individual differences was also present in the samples of previous studies conducted by Leavitt and Christenfeld, and simply went unnoticed. As each sample may have a different distribution of these individual characteristics, this may account for the apparent inconsistency between the various findings across studies. Moreover, while the latest studies provide some insights on systematic individual differences, it does not consider other variables, such as the amount of interest or commitment one has for a story. The latter may prove even more predictive of spoilers enjoyment than the need for affect

On top of its entertaining nature (and its undeniable scientific importance), studying this topic further highlights the inherent uncertainty (and suspense) of scientific research: no one knows beforehand what they may find, whether findings will go in the expected direction, or even whether the first set of results told the whole story. After all, a plot twist may always be lurking down the corner. Since reality usually doesn’t bother with providing spoilers beforehand, we really have no idea where this is going until more studies are conducted.

In the meantime, and after finding all about your inner cat or dog “personality” in a previous post, I suggest to proceed further on the road of self-discovery by taking a look at this witty (and beautifully-crafted) Netflix chart that allows you to pinpoint exactly what kind of spoiler person you really are.    

Djouaria Ghilani is a Ph.D. student at the Université Libre de Bruxelles. She works on the role of historical analogies in political judgment.


Johnson, B. K., & Rosenbaum, J. E. (2014). Spoiler Alert Consequences of Narrative Spoilers for Dimensions of Enjoyment, Appreciation, and Transportation. Communication Research, 0093650214564051.

Leavitt, J. D., & Christenfeld, N. J. (2011). Story spoilers don’t spoil stories. Psychological science22(9), 1152-1154.

Leavitt, J., & Christenfeld, N. J. (2013). The fluency of spoilers: Why giving away endings improves stories. Scientific Study of Literature3(1), 93-104.

Rosenbaum, J. E., & Johnson, B. K. (2015). Who’s Afraid of Spoilers? Need for Cognition, Need for Affect, and Narrative Selection and Enjoyment.


  1. Good Job Djou, Love the article !!

    1. Thank you, I am glad you liked it!

      See you soon on this blog,