Scientific Explanations for Why Spoilers Are So Horrible

Studies show that anticipation and suspension of disbelief are both key ingredients in a pleasurable experience—and spoilers have a tendency to kill both.

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PBS

I was recently the victim of a spoiler. It was the day after the two-hour finale of Downton Abbey, and I hadn't watched it yet. I innocently went on Facebook for my daily dose of family vacation and gourmet dinner photos, and there it was: a major plot twist divulged, courtesy of one of my "friends."

My tale of woe will likely sound familiar to many. The combination of social media, which allow us to react to events in real time, and new technologies, which provide us with countless ways to watch shows after they air, has made it easy to accidentally learn how a TV episode or movie ends before watching it. It isn't surprising, then, that the spoiler issue has been chewed over for years. Way back in 2008, on New York's Vulture site, Dan Kois even proposed a list of statutes of limitations for spoilers, specifying how long writers should wait before revealing important plot twists from TV shows, movies, plays, and books in their articles.

But this most recent spoiling left me feeling especially outraged—which, in turn, led me to wonder: Why did I care? Why were spoilers so bad? It turns out, I found, there's scientific research that helps explains what it is that spoilers spoil.

Some of this research starts with a fundamental question: Why do people like stories in the first place? As Yale psychology professor Paul Bloom points out in his book How Pleasure Works, it's puzzling that we spend more of our free time exploring fictional worlds—reading, watching TV and movies, playing video games—than engaging in real-world pastimes. "Surely we would be better off pursuing more adaptive activities—eating and drinking and fornicating, establishing relationships, building shelter, and teaching our children," he writes.

So what's with our obsession with make-believe? Bloom and others argue that, on some level, we don't distinguish fact from fiction. There's research to back this up: For example, a study found that people refuse to eat a piece of fudge shaped to look like feces, even though they know it's just fudge. Appearance and reality get blurred. We like stories about sex because we like having sex, and somewhere in our minds, the two are the same. As Thalia Goldstein, a psychology professor at Pace University, explained to me, this blurring actually happens at the neurological level: The conscious, thinking parts of our brain tell us that a story isn't real, but the more primitive parts tell us it is.

This research suggests one explanation for why spoilers suck: They remind us that a story is just a story. It's hard to get transported when you already know where you'll end up—in real life you don't have that knowledge.

Of course, not everyone shares my spoiler hatred. A recent study found that people who heard the "spoiled" version of a short story liked it more than those who heard the "unspoiled" version. But as Goldstein pointed out, the study overlooked a key fact: People only care about spoilers for stories they feel invested in, not those they've heard for the first time a minute earlier.

Spoilers suck because they remind us that a story is just a story. It's hard to get transported when you already know where you'll end up—in real life, you don't have that knowledge.

Some spoiler defenders make more theoretical arguments, such as Time's TV critic James Poniewozik, who wrote, "An unwanted spoiler does take something away, but not, I think, the pleasure of actually reading or watching a story. Rather, it takes away from the anticipation before watching it—wondering who dies, whether they'll get off the Island."

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Jennifer Richler is a writer based in Bloomington, Indiana.

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