It’s a vexing First World Problem – how to avoid people giving away, on Twitter or at the water cooler, the events of the latest Game of Thrones episode before you’ve caught it. Psychologists are beginning to study this modern scourge, albeit in the context of written stories rather than TV shows, but so far their findings have been contradictory – one study suggested that spoiled stories were actually more enjoyable (possibly because they’re easier to process), while a later investigation found the precise opposite. Now a research team led by Judith Rosenbaum has entered the fray with a study in Psychology of Popular Media Culture that suggests one reason for the contradictory results is that the effects of spoilers depend on how much a person likes to engage their brain, and how much they enjoy emotional stimulation.
In psychological jargon these traits are known as “need for cognition” and “need for affect”, respectively. The former is measured through disagreement with statements like “I only think as hard as I have to” and the latter via agreement with statements such as “Emotions help people get along in life”.
|Figure from Rosenbaum et al 2016|
The researchers first presented over 350 students, mostly African Americans at a university in Southeastern USA, with several previews of classic short stories, some of which contained plot spoilers and some that didn’t, and then asked them to say which of the stories they’d like to read. The students also completed measures of their need for cognition and affect, and the critical finding was that those who scored low on “need for cognition” tended to say they would prefer to read the full versions of stories that were previewed with plot spoilers. “When choosing between stories, low need for cognition individuals appear to have found spoiled stories as potentially more comprehensible and more in keeping with their preferred level of cognitive processing”, the researchers said.
Next, the students read some classic short stories (such as Two Were Left and Death of a Clerk) in full, some of which had been “spoiled” by a preview, and some not, and then rated their enjoyment of the stories. This time, “need for cognition” was unrelated to enjoyment, but “need for affect” was, in that people with a greater desire for emotional stimulation got more pleasure from unspoiled stories, as did the students who read fiction more frequently.
One positive way to look at these findings is that encountering a spoiler may not ruin your enjoyment as much as you think it will (if you’re a deep thinker), but probably will be a downer if you’re the kind of person who likes emotional surprises. Alternatively, perhaps this study is just too far removed from reality to offer much insight – after all, as the researchers acknowledge, they didn’t look at TV shows or movies (where plot spoilers are arguably more common), nor did they consider important variables such as genre (spoilers are presumably much more of an issue for horror and suspense) or story/show length.
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