More on Spoilers

I recently wrote about the unintended consequences of spoiler culture, and I just came across this post which has been making waves around the internets. That post points to a study which concluded that readers actually like to have a story “spoiled” before they start reading.

The U.C. San Diego researchers, who compiled this chart showcasing the spoiler ratings of three genres (ironic twist stories, mysteries or literary stories), posited this about their findings: “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.”

Jonah Lehrer apparently goes so far as to read the last 5 pages of the novels he reads, just so he has an idea where the story’s headed. He clearly approves of the research’s conclusions, and makes a few interesting observations, including:

Surprises are much more fun to plan than experience. The human mind is a prediction machine, which means that it registers most surprises as a cognitive failure, a mental mistake. Our first reaction is almost never “How cool! I never saw that coming!” Instead, we feel embarrassed by our gullibility, the dismay of a prediction error. While authors and screenwriters might enjoy composing those clever twists, they should know that the audience will enjoy it far less.

Interestingly, a few years ago, I posted about this conundrum from the opposite end. Author China MiĆ©ville basically thinks it’s extremely difficult, maybe even impossible, to write a crime story or mystery with a good ending:

Reviews of crime novels repeatedly refer to this or that book’s slightly disappointing conclusion. This is the case even where reviewers are otherwise hugely admiring. Sometimes you can almost sense their bewilderment when, looking closely at the way threads are wrapped up and plots and sub-plots knotted, they acknowledge that nothing could be done to improve an ending, that it works, that it is ‘fair’ (a very important quality for the crime aficionado – no last-minute suspects, no evidence the reader hasn’t seen), that it is well-written, that it surprises… and yet that it disappoints.

The reason, I think, is that crime novels are impossible. Specifically, impossible to end.

There’s a lot to parse out above, but I have two thoughts on the conclusions raised by the original study. First is that there may actually be something to the cognitive benefits theory of why people like this. The theory and methodology of interpretation of text is referred to as hermeneutics*. This is a useful field because language, especially figurative language, is often obscure and vague. For example, in the study of religious writings, it is often found that they are written in a certain vernacular and for a specific audience. In order to truly understand said writings, it is important to put them in their proper cultural and historical context. You can’t really do that without knowing what the text says in the first place.

This is what’s known as the hermenutic circle. It’s kinda like the application of science to interpretation. Scientists start by identifying a problem, and they theorize the answer to that problem. In performing and observing their experiment to test the problem, they gain new insights which must then be used to revise their hypothesis. This is basically a hermeneutic circle. To apply it to the situation at hand: When reading a book, we are influenced by our overall view of the book’s themes. But how are we to know the book’s themes as a whole if we have not yet finished reading the parts of the book? We need to start reading the book with our own “pre-understanding”, from which we hypothesize a main theme for the whole book. After we finish reading the book, we go back to each individual chapter with this main theme in mind to get a better understanding of how all the parts relate to the whole. During this process, we often end up changing our main theme. With the new information gained from this revision, we can again revise our main theme of the book, and so on, until we can see a coherent and consistent picture of the whole book. What we get out of this hermeneutic circle is not absolute and final, but it is considered to be reasonable because it has withstood the process of critical testing.

This process in itself can be fulfilling, and it’s probably why folks like Jonah Lehrer don’t mind spoilers – it gives them a jump start on the hermeneutic circle.

Second, the really weird thing about this study is that it sorta misses the point. As Freddie points out:

The whole point of spoilers is that they’re unchosen; nobody really thinks that there’s something wrong with people accessing secrets and endings about art they haven’t yet consumed. What they object to is when spoilers are presented in a way that an unsuspecting person might unwittingly read them. The study suggests that people have a preference for knowing the ending, but preference involves choice. You can’t deliberately act on a preference for foreknowledge of plot if you are presented the information without choosing to access it.

And that’s really the point. Sometimes I don’t mind knowing the twist before I start watching/reading something, but there are other times when I want to go in completely blind. Nothing says that I have to approach all movies or books (or whatever) exactly the same way, every time. And context does matter. When you see a movie without knowing anything about it, there can be something exhilarating in the discovery. That doesn’t mean I have to approach all movies that way, just that the variety is somethings a good thing.

* – Yeah, I plundered that entry that I wrote for everything2 all those years ago pretty heavily. Sue me.