I have these two friends. We’ll call them…Jack and Jill. They did not fall down a hill, but they did have a falling out. A falling out about spoilers. You see, several Top Chef seasons ago, the day after the finale, Jack posted his disappointment at the outcome on Facebook. It’s hard to imagine anyone other than the winner and his parents actually wanted him to win that one, and Jack’s disappointment was understandable. But Jill was furious. She hadn’t watched yet, and now Jack had ruined something she’d been excited about. Jack apologized, but Jill was having none of it. I’ll admit, I too had planned to watch it that evening and didn’t bother, knowing the outcome. Unlike Jill, I didn’t feel Jack was in serious breach of the unspoken codes of civilized society, but I felt her pain and wished he’s restrained himself.
It turns out, though, that even though we think we hate spoilers, we don’t. According to a UC San Diego study that’s been much written about this week, including at Ars Technica, we actually enjoy things more when we’ve been spoiled. I initially found that surprising, since I’m the sort of person who rarely bothers to read or watch something if I know the twist ending or surprise reveal. I think it’s a product of my high school AP English class, which trained my brain to believe it’s more important to know what happens and why and what it means than to read the book. For test prep, we each regularly read and reported to the class on a different book, covering by the end of the year the entire spectrum of classics that might find themselves on the exam. It was an intelligent and highly effective way to teach to the test, and knowing such a wide swathe of the literary canon well if not intimately has been a valuable tool in my arsenal as both an English major and publishing professional. The unfortunate side effect has been that I don’t necessarily feel obligated to read things that I already know a lot about, which is of course missing the point when there’s no exam on the line. In life, as opposed to AP English, the experience of reading a book is far more valuable than knowing what happens in many books you haven’t read. I’ve got context, but I’ve cheated myself out of enjoyment and genuine edification.
When I do manage to go in unspoiled, I actually tend to ruin for myself the pleasure of twist endings anyway, determined to figure out before the author wants me to what’s actually going on. As Jonah Lehrer says in the piece linked above, “The human mind is a prediction machine, which means that it registers most surprises as a cognitive failure, a mental mistake.” I definitely feel that way, on a conscious level, when I don’t figure out what’s going on before I’m told. On the one hand, it’s the mark of a successful story, and I always applaud the author for pulling it off, even on a reader like me who insists upon trying to best them on each page. And on the other, I do always ever so slightly feel disappointed in myself for losing that fight. Perhaps that does mean that if I read all the things for which I was spoiled, I’d actually enjoy them more! Maybe, like Lehrer, I should just start reading the last few pages on everything, so I can go with the flow and stop trying to win a nonexistent competition.
For what it’s worth, my second favorite observation in the Ars Technica piece is: “Every genre is a kind of spoiler.” Meaning that when we watch or read something, we know what to expect to a certain extent based on what it is. The hero’s going to get the girl. The world will be saved from destruction. The enemy will be defeated. Unless we’re watching something where the twist is the name of the game or the whole point might be a miserable ending, we have a certain expectation, and movies and books usually give us the ending we want. I’ve never thought of it that way, but it’s a pretty interesting thought.
What about the rest of you? Do you prefer your entertainment to be a spoiler-free zone, or do you “cheat” and sneak a peek at the ending (or the numerous websites providing the answer)?