Researchers Prove Spoilers Enhance One’s Reading Experience

UCSD department of psychology graduate student Jonathan Leavitt tested the effects of spoilers in short stories that have themes including ironic twist, mystery and evocative literary stories on UCSD students. Results show spoilers enhance readers’ enjoyment rather than detract from them.

Upon entering UCSD’s graduate program with an MFA in writing fiction, Leavitt was encouraged to start this study by psychology professor Nicholas Christenfeld, who helped him develop the project. Leavitt and Christenfeld began designing the test in September of last year — testing and analysis of the raw data took months to complete. They performed a total of three experiments with 12 different short stories by authors such as Roald Dahl and John Updike.

To be a part of the study, subjects were only required to be fluent and able to read in English. Due to such simple qualifications, subjects were chosen at random. All participants received versions of the same story that were unspoiled, with a separate spoiler on another sheet of paper and a version that had a spoiler that was put in the beginning, as if it was the opening of the story. They would read all three versions and rate how much they enjoyed each one on a scale of one to ten.

“We were interested in the experience of suspense and why people think that the excitement of reading a story depends on not knowing the ending, but then they reread the same stories and can enjoy them just as much, even when everything is already known,” Leavitt said. “You’re focused on outcomes and how things will turn out, and that gives readers the impression that if they already knew how it turned out, they would find the story less or not interesting.”

All story genres proved to be more enjoyable despite being spoiled.
 
“We found very little difference,” Leavitt said. “It seemed that what was most important was that the spoiler was clear and understandable. Across different genres, it seems like spoilers were making people enjoy stories more.”
 
The only story that did not benefit from being spoiled was Anton Chekhov’s “The Bet,” an ironic twist story. However, Leavitt feels that enjoyment was reduced not because it was spoiled, but because the spoiler was poorly written. Readers found the spoiler to be difficult to understand and were uncertain on how the story would end based on the spoiler. The rest of the data still indicates that spoilers enhance reader enjoyment.
 
Leavitt’s next goal is to apply his theory to other narrative media and to find out why spoilers are having this particular effect. He has developed two theories to explain the trend.
 
“One is that having a spoiler makes a story easier to read and understand,” Leavitt said. “The other theory is that people tend to focus on suspense regarding the outcome, and once you know how the story will end, it enables you to broaden your focus and appreciate the other aspects of the story, like the language and development of characters.”

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