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20 Jun 2019 15:38
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  •   Home > News > International

    Spoilers have little effect on our enjoyment, research shows. Is our anxiety misguided?

    If you were a Game Of Thrones fan who basically turned off the internet every Monday, your anxiety over spoilers may have been irrational, research suggests. But what is the etiquette around discussing plot details?


    Kevin Spacey's character was actually Keyser Söze. The killer on the Orient Express was all of them. The psychologist played by Bruce Willis was dead the whole time.

    The bad news: we just spoiled three well-known storylines from popular culture. Sorry.

    The good news: that might not actually diminish your enjoyment of them.

    The impact of accidentally finding out what is going to happen in a film, TV show or book before you've had a chance to consume it is overblown, according to researchers.

    If you were a Game Of Thrones fan who basically turned off the internet every Monday, your anxiety over spoilers may have been — spoiler alert! — irrational.

    But as major series like The Handmaid's Tale and Big Little Lies return, what do we know about this phenomenon of spoilers, which have become such a part of our 21st Century lexicon?

    And should a bit of academic research really overwrite the well-known norms of the water cooler?

    The anger is real, but there's little effect on enjoyment

    The first proper examination of what effect spoilers had on a viewer's enjoyment was in 2011.

    Researchers at the University of California, San Diego, found not only did having a storyline spoiled not ruin an experience, it actually made it a little better. You could enjoy the sausage more once you knew how it was made.

    But that research was done using short stories, not films or TV shows with the kind of emotional investment of GoT or Marvel.

    Benjamin K Johnson, an assistant professor at the University of Florida, wanted to take a more nuance look using films.

    In a study this year — his sixth on the topic — Mr Johnson looked at horror films, which generate at least part of their enjoyment through sudden scares and unforeseen character deaths.

    The participants in that study, published recently in the Journal of Media Psychology, were shown three 90-second clips from Saw, Insidious, You're Next or Descent.

    "We [were] telling them 'we are having you watch some film clips, we wanted to know what you think of the film, here's a little bit of background information'," Mr Johnson explained.

    "And then maybe that background information doesn't give anything away, if they are in a non-spoiled [group]. Or if they are in a spoiled [group], then it might tell them what happens — 'this person dies', or 'so-and-so is revealed to be the mastermind'."

    There was not much difference in the experiences of each group.

    "We found that whether we gave someone a spoiler or not didn't really effect their suspense, their enjoyment, [or] how much they were pulled into the storyline."

    Previous studies by Mr Johnson have variously shown a slight increase or decrease in enjoyment following a spoiler — but only slight.

    That's because when we actually watched the film or show, the quality of the storytelling, how much we connect emotionally with the characters, and whether we are able to share that experience with friends or family is much more important than how the plot develops.

    Richard Greene, author of the new book Spoiler Alert! (It's A Book About the Philosophy of Spoilers), agrees that anxiety over plot reveals is not consistent with their overall effect.

    "On some occasions I've had students raise their hands if they've ever been terribly upset upon having a spoiler revealed," Mr Greene, who teaches in the department of political science and philosophy at Weber State University, told the ABC.

    "More than half the class will raise their hand.

    "I then ask them to leave their hands up if they've been terribly bothered by the plight of Syrian refugees. Most put their hands down."

    How do we know what's OK to reveal?

    Both Mr Johnson and Mr Greene said anger over a spoiled storyline was both measured in the science and justified. People feel their ability to choose has been taken away.

    Choice is crucial, because some personality types enjoy suspense more than others — shout out to those readers who flip to the last page of detective novels — and how we navigate spoilers will necessarily be nuanced and based on the individual.

    Which raises the question of etiquette.

    Mr Greene argues there's a grace period for plot details — or a "shelf-life of spoilers". The line is about one month from the release of a film. After that, if you haven't caught up, that's your fault.

    But while the fact Romeo and Juliet die in the end is universal knowledge, that famous twist in The Sixth Sense, which was released 20 years ago, still feels oddly sacred.

    That's because this is not just about timing. It's the importance of the plot detail to the story, the significance of the work, and so much more, including whether you are talking one-on-one to a friend or broadcasting to your followers.

    "There are different rules for social media depending on the forum, there are different rules for whether something is a weekly television program, a television program that releases an entire season all at once, a movie, a play, a novel," he said.

    So, while it has been decades, maybe we did commit some mild crimes against spoiling at the top of this story, given the lack of choice and the significance of those stories.

    Alternatively, maybe you'll like those movies more now.

    © 2019 ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved


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