Do Spoilers Spoil Books or Movies?
Today I was compared to a young-earth creationist because I dared to disbelieve that spoiling entertainment has no detrimental (or indeed it has a positive) impact on my enjoyment. The level of patronizing in the criticism was such that I read the report that he cited to patronize me. That, I suspect, is where our experiences with the subject matter differed. Because once I had read it I went from being mostly suspect to being in complete disbelief, I couldn’t imagine anyone reading this research paper and not being suspicious of the findings.
I’m going to lay out the criticisms that come to mind but rest assured I won’t be hitting everything. In at least on point in our discussion I’m going to be tautological but doing so entirely aware and intentionally. But let’s begin at the beginning.
The first is the topic of discussion. Psychology, while being one of my favorite sciences, is and likely always will be a soft science. We can with Psychology make broad statements about the human psyche and the larger our research pool the more certain we can be with our commentary. Psychology was my main focus in college and likely one of the most heavily researched fields in my life. So when someone starts getting smug with me on this topic I tend to be a bit defensive. First we’ll link you to the research paper that everyone cited but didn’t have the decency to link to:
What we are most interested in are the method and the result, their anecdotes elsewhere are of little importance. 819 students from the University of California, San Diego were used for this study. Of this group there was 176 men and 643 women. Already I’m a little nervous while reading this article because its heavily sided to a single gender. Something they seem entirely oblivious of and never address. The next is that we are looking at 819 college students from a single university in a single state. Everyone citing this paper is extrapolating a very small study to the entire human population. Do you know what happened the last time someone did that that I can recall off hand? People started saying vaccines caused Autism.
That vaccine paper actually came to my mind a lot while I read this. But in the case of this study the writers are actually much less confident and smug than the people citing the paper. Whereas with the vaccine paper the opposite was most certainly true. But back to my point. We have 819 college students from a single university in a single state, reading a bunch of books they have literally no emotional expectations from, and these books were ‘spoiled’ with information that the study creators deemed “spoilers”. But what were these spoilers? They are never detailed in the report. Allow me to “spoil” a few video games and movies for you, tell me how they impact your feelings towards those particular items.
Bioshock happens underwater.
There are dead people in the Sixth Sense.
Megatron makes an appearance in Transformers.
Jason Vorhees murders [insert the names of a random selection of teens from any of the films].
Do these constitute spoilers? I would argue that they do not and that they are perhaps even straw men. But that underlines one of my problems with this research paper. They said they spoiled these stories for the readers. But did they really? They might have thought that they did but clearly they did not. Had they spoiled these stories the stories would have been spoiled (that’s the tautology). This is the problem with the nature of the word and its function. A plot summary is meaningless if the reason you are watching the film is not for the plot. The plot of Prometheus is a fetid pile of shit that no spoiler could ruin, but if you are someone who loves set design it is still a very enjoyable film.
But before I start going into the rest of my problems lets get into the result. At the end of their results they mention that readers didn’t find the spoilers included in the altered beginnings to be jarring. This suggests to me even further that what they delivered was not spoilers. They detailed what they found to be the most important parts of the stories to them, to other people, and other people did not find meaning or perhaps did not find the story hinging on those bits of information.
Another major problem I have is with the concept of a “hedonic rating”. I’m a big fan of hedonism, I’m sure a lot of people are. But in citing hedonism they have undone their own research. If people were experiencing the same thing each time they read a book they liked or watched a film they liked (or listened to a song they liked) they would suffer from the Hedonic treadmill. But if they suffered from the Hedonic treadmill they wouldn’t be watching that film, reading that book, or listening to that song for the hundredth time. So why is it then that anyone could do this?
I thought the answer was simple, but during my little discussion today the other half of the discussion seemed to think this was the concrete evidence to prove the report. Obviously this phenomenon that impacts humans nearly universally is overridden when it comes to things we like. The problem here is the confusion of the medium and the experience. Yes, you are reading the same book over and over. But each time you read it is not the same experience. You aren’t reading it for the same reasons each time. The first time you read it you read it to reveal the story. Maybe another time for nostalgia. Another to peel apart all the subtle nuances of the writing. Further still because you want to live in that world. Why deny people that extra experience if they want that experience.
You simply wouldn’t keep absorbing that media if it stimulated you in the same way each time. Because if there is one place we have an astounding amount of research it is in the nature of hedonism and our brains ability to build up resistances to stimulation. The entire nature of addiction and the danger of relapsing into an addiction come from the hedonic treadmill. The recent death of Philip Seymour Hoffman being a real world example.
Some people like that first experience. There is nothing in this entire 1.5 page essay that suggests they are wrong in that belief. All this paper says is that the first experience does not elicit the same (self reported) pleasure levels that the second/spoiled readings do. It doesn’t examine the different ways each reading stimulates the brain. It doesn’t examine how these results work across different cultures or regions. It doesn’t examine just about anything. All it found is that at a basic pleasure level, these books were better when you had the information that the scientists provided.
Another fundamental problem with psychology is that people act differently in studies than they do in real life. There are ethical reasons why we can’t really get passed this most of the time but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t consider it. These people weren’t reading these books for the same reason than the average person consumes a book. They were reading them as part of a project for a college. There are so many variables up in the air with this study that it borders on meaningless.
Finally these were all short stories. Do people have the same expectations from a short story as they do a long one? Do people have the same expectations from a 20 dollar video game as they do a 60 dollar one? Rather random example but its something I know my personal answer to. If this study is 100% true then at best it currently tells us that people don’t care if you spoil a short story.
What would be more interesting (and meaningful) to me would be a study that takes random tidbit of information from a book (or set of books) and A/B tests the response of readers across an actual diverse sampling size. Find which information improves and which information hinders the reading of the book. What bothers me more than this report existing (because its a perfectly acceptable college assignment) but rather the way people are using it.
People citing this study are doing a few things rather consistently across websites. The first is that they are smugly asserting that no good story falls apart when spoiled. This is usually a bad sign. When a scientific study is used to make blanket statements about the “objective” nature of subjective things, you likely have a misstep. The most cliche example was the Dumbledore reveal on a few of the pages citing this report. Personally speaking, as is the only option on this topic, Dumbledore has no impact on my feelings towards the Harry Potter series. He could have turned into a giraffe in the books and the part that actually interested me would have remained interesting.
Telling me what happens with him in the story might seem like a spoiler on the face of it. He’s a primary character and thusly I should be finding him important and his exploits or misfortunes important. But I don’t.
The next major problem I have with folks citing this is that they are using it as means and reason to alter their own lives. It’s one study. It’s not even a good one. What ever happened to being a skeptic? Science is about repeating results. Psychology in particular is very stringent about emphasizing that effectively nothing is universal. Yes, on average, a lot of people suffer the hedonic treadmill. But if you happen to have acute brain damage or even just a different genetic marker you might not. That doesn’t mean you are wrong. That means you are you.
If you find that spoilers spoil things for you, then they do. That’s the nature of personal emotion.
What I find most strange about these results and people flippantly throwing them around is that they don’t even make functional sense in the scientific community. Can you think of a single scientist that wants to immediately know the answer to everything? I imagine some exist but science is about the journey. The results are these once in a lifetime bursts of sensation that run throughout your body. But the journey is what really captures a scientist. That curiosity. If spoilers don’t ruin anything then by that logic knowing the answer to every question would have no impact on the journey to know.
Maybe that is true but on the face of it that sounds rather ludicrous to me. But what do I know? Apparently I’m as dumb as someone who thinks the world is only 6,000 years old.
Note: Another (of the literally dozens) of explanations for this paper that I didn’t even consider was stated thusly: “Perhaps it’s simply that stories are EASIER to read when we don’t have to spend time worrying about where intricate plot lines are going?”