Narrative Dessert Doesn’t Spoil Dinner

Spoilers in media have never bothered me.  I put this down to a preference for Shakespearean tragedies, where knowing the outcome makes it worse, and therefor better.  I also find anxiety about the outcome of a story distracting- the worst of this was when I watched Serenity, and genuinely believed they might all die, mission unaccomplished.  In one sense that was a triumph of story telling, but I found my own anxiety blocked me from empathizing with the characters’ emotions, which is what I actually watch movies for.  Now my pattern is start movie-read plot on wikipedia-finish movie.  One of the funner parts of comic book movies is I can simultaneously read a lot of deep background (from the comic book universe) without knowing exactly what is going to happen with the actual story in front of me.

Apparently I’m not alone.  Mythcreants has a great post pointing to research about how knowing the ending affects enjoyment of a story.   They studied three genres- ironic twist stories (e.g. anything O. Henry ever wrote), mysteries, and grown up literature stories.  On a 10 point scale, subjects reported enjoying the spoiled stories about half a point more, across all three genres.

The problem with this and most psychology studies is that it was done primarily on undergrads at a fairly competitive university, many of whom are taking psychology classes.  Aside from the usual demographics issues, this is also the population cliff notes was invented for.  More generously, college students are reading difficult texts for comprehension all the time, and that particular brain-muscle may be tired.  It seems entirely possible that a factory worker who spends their work day on rote might have more reserves to enjoy the challenge of interpreting text without knowing where the story is going.

Revealed preference evidence is mixed.  TV is full of formulaic sitcoms and reality TV, but the long tail of rich, complex, ambiguous shows grows fatter every year.  What was once a freak thing HBO did to create an artistic backdrop for nipples is now fairly common.  Although “gritty morally ambiguous middle aged white guy” has become its own trope.  I guess the take home message here is that if you think you enjoy spoilers, you are probably right.

*Meanwhile my greatest regret about GRRM not finishing the 6th book is that it means I can no longer google where the TV show is going.