Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The Spoiler Effect: To Know, or Not to Know?

If you've spent much time reading about and/or discussing your entertainment type of choice, odds are good that you have come across examples of the dreaded spoiler, i.e. plot and character information about something you haven't yet watched/read/listened to/downloaded directly into your cerebellum.*  And if you peruse message boards and comment sections, odds are even better that you've run into people who are on both sides of the spoiler debate; to wit, whether a spoiler is truly harmful to a person's enjoyment of a work or not.  Recently, the pro-spoiler camp got some new ammo in the fight with the release of a study that's been reported all over the place in articles bearing variations of "Spoilers Don't Spoil Anything" as a headline.  After seeing the umpteenth "Science proves spoilers are harmless!" article, I decided as a member of the anti-spoiler camp it was time for me to compose a rebuttal.

One argument that gets trotted out a lot by spoiler proponents is along the lines of "If the big twist is all something has going for it, it's not really worth much, is it?"  And yes, I will concede that there are some works out there whose primary value is of the shock variety, and therefore lose most of their potency when the audience is deprived of said shock.  However, to say that something only has shock value is not to say that it has no value at all; and, if something's value is tied directly into the twist, why would you feel the need to ruin that experience for someone?  Not everything is designed to be viewed or read over and over again; I don't believe disposable entertainment is the downfall of our culture as long as there are still other works out there that engage people on other levels.

A related argument says "If a work is done well, then what does it matter whether you know what's going to happen?  The skill and talent involved will make it worthwhile regardless."  This argument often relies on the concept of re-reading and re-watching to drive its point home, the idea being that when you experience a work a second time, you know what's going to happen and you still enjoy it, so therefore you would have enjoyed it in the first place no matter what.   What the people who use this argument fail to grasp is that just because you can enjoy a work even with spoilers doesn't mean that your level of enjoyment is the same, nor is the type of enjoyment you experience the same.

Let's take a couple of examples from my own life.  First, the film Serenity.  I love this film, and have watched it multiple times without my enjoyment of it lessening at all.  However, my first viewing was a distinctly different experience from all subsequent viewings due to the high level of tension I felt over the fate of the characters.  In the final act of the film, there is a distinct moment for each character wherein that character could possibly die, and with each of those moments I felt a stab of fear that this character I loved might be gone for good.  Now, if I had gone in knowing ahead of time precisely which characters would survive and which wouldn't, that tension and fear that kept me glued to the screen would have been lessened; and, while I can still watch the film and enjoy it for the writing, acting, direction, action, etc., I will never again be able to reproduce that original feeling.  But at the same time, when I re-watch the film, I can sometimes feel echoes of that tension, and remember just how powerfully it affected me the first time.

On the flip side is the movie Psycho. By the time I saw the Hitchcock classic my 7th grade year -- caution, mild spoilers ahead --  the shower scene and the secret of Norman's mother had long since been burned into my brain through pop culture awareness, and my highly anticipated viewing of it was quite underwhelming.  You could chalk part of that up to my being a callow youth at the time, but what people sometimes forget about Psycho is that those unfamiliar with the plot went in thinking that Janet Leigh's character would be the protagonist throughout, making her death at the end of the first act extremely shocking.  I, however, went in with a working knowledge of the Bates Motel set-up and the circumstances of her demise, so the shower sequence lost a great deal of its impact. 

Of course, in both of these cases, pro-spoiler advocates might argue that I'm only conjecturing how I might have reacted in the presence of absence of spoilers, but I can't really know for sure; and, while it might be true that I can't know 100%, my overall experience of reading and watching both spoiled and non-spoiled entertainment has given me a pretty solid foundation upon which to base my conclusions. 

"But Todd," the pro-spoilers among you might be asking, "so far you've been talking about general pro-spoiler arguments, but what about the study that sparked this diatribe?  Are you arguing against science?"

No, of course not.  What I am arguing against is a study whose sweeping conclusions about the value of surprise -- or lack thereof -- appear to be an example of comparing apples and oranges. The study is based on giving a group of undergraduates a selection of short stories, some with spoilers attached, some without, and then having them rate their enjoyment of each.  They found that the enjoyment factor was generally larger among those who had been spoiled as opposed to those who hadn't, ergo spoilers don't hurt.

Oh, where to begin . . .

First of all, let's get the fact that the subjects enjoyed "literary" stories less than the more genre pieces out of the way -- after all, while it might show that the subjects picked weren't interested in more complex works, it doesn't necessarily have anything to do with whether spoilers matter or not . . . although, since the study's argument rests largely on the "people prefer to deal with familiar things because they're easier" premise, it could actually be relevant  . . . but I digress.

No, for me the more pressing factor is that the researchers took a small sample of people, assigned them some short stories to read, took their general rankings of enjoyment and then extrapolated it into "spoilers mean nothing, people who think they do are wrong, this could shatter our very understanding of surprise and suspense!"

Except, well, no, not really.  Because first of all, short stories are not novels or TV series or movies or Comic books or plays or any other long-form piece of literature which, by their nature, rely more on developing tension and suspense over a greater period of time to achieve their effect.  All formats are not created equally; each has its own strengths and weaknesses, and assuming that you can take the results of testing one type of work and apply it to all types of works is a fallacy**.

And secondly, there is a little thing called "context" involved in determining whether or not a spoiler has a negative effect on an audience member.  If someone were to pull me aside, give me a random short story to read, and intro it with "And by the way, the narrator dies at the end," would I be upset and feel my enjoyment had been harmed?  Possibly not.  But, let's say someone were to give me the long-awaited sequel to one of my favorite books that I had been anticipating for a decade, and then tell me "It's crazy that they killed off the main character's wife on the last page, isn't it?" then, yes, odds are good that I'm going to be upset.  While I am firmly anti-spoiler in my philosophy, in practice I find that I prefer certain works to remain a mystery before experiencing them, while others I couldn't care less whether they were spoiled or not.  Context and emotional connection are key.

I think that's one of the things that bothers me most about the pro-spoiler camp; in addition to the one-size-fits-all, it-doesn't-bother-me-so-it-shouldn't-bother-you method of arguing, they often try to divorce all reactions to works from any emotional connection. When someone blurts out a spoiler for something you've been highly anticipating, the negative feelings generated by their carelessness can color your enjoyment of the work.  That may not be rational, but it is definitely human.  Trying to ignore that aspect of the spoiler phenomenon seems to be missing the point.

In the Wired article I linked to at the top, the author -- who came into this as someone who likes to read the last five pages of a book first -- comes up with his own rationalizations for why spoilers are meaningless, including  this snippet:
The human mind is a prediction machine, which means that it registers most surprises as a cognitive failure, a mental mistake. Our first reaction is almost never “How cool! I never saw that coming!” Instead, we feel embarrassed by our gullibility, the dismay of a prediction error.
As someone whose counts among his favorite works ones which generated the "How cool! I never saw that coming!" effect, I find this line of thought puzzling.  Which in turn brings me back to the cornerstone of the Enjoyment Modifiers schema:  the tautology of "Different People Are Different."  There are those who go into a movie or novel trying to guess everything that's going to happen, and they might very well suffer disappointment when they guess wrong; then there are those such as myself who just want to submerge themselves in the experience and let it unfold before them, and they will probably react to surprises with enjoyment at where the ride has taken them.

Like I said earlier, I too have times when I indulge in spoilers, although for me it's usually in the context of sporting events or other competitions -- if someone I really like (GSP, OSU, Colts) is going up against someone I really loathe (Koscheck, OU, Patriots) and I can't watch it live, I will often go ahead and look at the results before watching so I won't give myself an ulcer hoping the good guys win out.  But on the whole, when it comes to fiction, I prefer to be kept in the dark as much as possible beforehand so I can experience the work as its creators intended.

In conclusion I'd like to say this:  if you're someone who enjoys knowing as much as you can about something before you read or watch it, then there's nothing wrong with that.  But when you force that information onto someone who doesn't enjoy it, or deride them for their desire to be spoiler-free, it's a different story. 

Audience participation time:  How do you feel about spoilers?  Do you want it all laid out beforehand, or do you want to be surprised at every turn? 

*That last one is for future readers/downloaders.
**As is taking the study and applying it to surprise parties and wrapping presents; apparently, enjoying "An Occurance at Owl Creek Bridge" more because you know the narrator's dead means that all forms of surprise  lessens all forms of enjoyment in the world.


  1. You should think of becoming a paid writer. Have you ever submitted an article to a magazine? If nothing else you ought to become a higher profile blogger. Your thoughts are worth reading.

    By the way, I agree with you about spoilers.

  2. Generally I'm against spoilers as well, not so much so because I like the thrill or whatever of not knowing until it happens, but because I like to try and figure it out during and then want to see if I'm right.

    On the other hand, there is a completely different feeling that comes along with knowing ahead of time that a twist will appear and something unexpected will happen. This is due to the fact that sometimes I like to see how it comes to be. During the entire [whatever it is] I enjoying thinking, "Ok, such and such needs to happen. How's this part of the story going to progress that?"