Leavitt ’92 Studies ‘Spoilers’: Tell Us What Happens

Jonathan Leavitt ’92

A new study by University of California – San Diego Professor of Psychology Nicholas Christenfeld and graduate student Jonathan Leavitt ’92 suggests that people enjoy a story more when they they already know how it ends.

Writer Mary Elizabeth Williams, for Salon.com suggests that those on constant  alert for “spoilers” in media reviews should chill out: “For their study, Nicholas Christenfeld and Jonathan Leavitt provided participants with a variety of ‘ironic-twist, mystery and literary’ short stories…. Some readers read the stories in their original forms. Some were given a preface with the spoiler. Others had a spoiler rewritten into the middle of the story. Now here’s the SHOCKING TWIST: Nearly every time, the readers preferred the ‘spoiled’ versions.”

An upcoming issue of Psychological Science will report on this, also.

While Christenfeld and Leavitt’s study did not garner results that explained the preference for knowing what happened, the researchers have speculated:

“…[I]t could be,” said Leavitt, “that once you know how it turns out, it’s cognitively easier—you’re more comfortable processing the information—and can focus on a deeper understanding of the story.”

A UC San Diego press release noted that “The overall findings are consistent with the experience most of us have had: A favorite tale can be re-read multiple times with undiminished pleasure. A beloved movie can be watched again and again.”

They conclude their report questioning whether our  “other intuitions about suspense may be similarly wrong” —questioning whether cellophane, rather than opaque paper, might be the better covering for a birthday or holiday gift.

While Christenfeld also speculated that we might be “well-advised to reconsider surprise parties,” the two continue to explore the qualities that make for a successful story. Apropos the recent scandals about fictionalized memoirs, they are asking why it matters that an interesting story also be true