Mind & Body

Knowing the Ending Makes a Story Better, Not Worse, Says the Spoiler Paradox

When you miss the finale of your favorite show, avoiding all social media until you watch it. Is. A. Must. The risk of catching a spoiler is too great, and nothing is worse than accidentally stumbling upon the season's last big twist. Other than not reading a spoiler, that is ...

Don't chastise your Facebook friends for ruining the ending; they're only making it better for you. Show a little gratitude, would ya?

Don't Ruin the Ending, Tell Me the Ending

According to a 2011 study published in Psychological Science, story spoilers don't spoil stories. (Actually, that is the exact title of the study.) Researchers from the University of California, San Diego, conducted three experiments with 12 short stories from authors such as John Updike, Agatha Christie, Roald Dahl, and Anton Chekhov. Each story contained some sort of juicy twist, mystery, or irony.

The stories were given to the participants in three conditions: the ending was revealed as part of the introductory text, the ending was revealed in a text separate from the story, or the ending was not revealed at all. The study found that participants enjoyed the spoiled stories more than the unspoiled stories, preferring the stories that had the ending revealed in a separate text the best.

In other words, that give-away Facebook status you accidentally scrolled to will make the season finale of "Game of Thrones" that much better. Although we're calling this the spoiler paradox, it's not technically a paradox. It's just a little ironic how we go so far out of our way not to "ruin" the endings of stories when "ruining" them may actually improve them. If you believe this research, "No spoilers!" should be interpreted as a demand not to withhold the ending.

Warning: Spoilers Ahead

Now that we've demolished everything you've ever considered holy in storytelling, we need to tackle the big question: Why do we like having prior knowledge of the big twist, the grand reveal, the closing whammy? Knowing the end of a movie, book, or TV show frees up some space in your brain to focus in on details, instead of expending mental energy on trying to predict the ending. The study's authors describe how "suspense regarding the outcome may not be critical, and could even impair pleasure by distracting attention from relevant details and aesthetic attributes."

Don't you have a favorite movie that you still love watching over and over? (Of course you do — it's good for you, too!) Basically, knowing what will happen helps us understand the story with greater ease. And, as this 2001 study maintains, the human brain really likes when things are easy for it to grasp.

"So it could be," said Jonathan Leavitt, a co-author of the 2011 study, "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." As you take this knowledge to your next Netflix binge, just know that Bruce Willis is dead the whole time. You're welcome.

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Written by Joanie Faletto September 16, 2017

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