I have some bad news for the woman who’s taken it upon herself to torture her ex boyfriend by consistently spoiling “Game of Thrones” each week: it’s not working. Despite her gusto and creativity -- if you’re unfamiliar with the story, she unblocks him from various social media platforms each week for just long enough to reveal spoilers, or texts him directly using someone else’s phone — science says her impulse for revenge isn’t actually being achieved.
Spoiler alert: spoilers don’t really ruin stories.
A 2011 study conducted by the University of California San Diego sought to determine whether knowing the details of how a story will end ultimately affects our enjoyment.
The study’s authors ran three experiments using twelve short stories, some with ironic twists, others from mystery genres, and a few literary tales. The authors of the stories ranged from Roald Dahl to Anton Chekhov to Raymond Carver, wordsmiths whose work have become classics -- and therefore well known -- for a reason.
For the experiment, a spoiler paragraph was included in each story either as a preface, or discreetly incorporated into the body of the text as if it was meant to be there all along. Participant criteria stipulated that readers must be unfamiliar with the stories, and each version of the study was read by at least thirty participants.
Overwhelmingly, subjects preferred the versions that featured prefatory spoiler paragraphs.
One reason might be that most plots are overrated — sorry, “GoT” devotees.
“Plots are just excuses for great writing. What the plot is is (almost) irrelevant. The pleasure is in the writing,” said Nicholas Christenfeld, a UC San Diego professor of social psychology in a statement.
Let’s think about Shakespeare for a moment. The plays’ endings are often revealed in the titles – “The Tragedy of Macbeth,” “The Comedy of Errors,” yada yada yada. From the get-go, we know a tragedy is going to end in death and desolation, and yet we (at least I) hope things will be different every time “Romeo and Juliet” is revisited -- especially the film version with Leonardo DiCaprio.
Another reason spoilers might improve our levels of enjoyment is that people tend to appreciate things that are easy to process. So if we know what’s going to happen, then it’s cognitively easier for us to follow along. We can appreciate the plot rather than spending cognitive energy trying to figure it out.
Also, fear and anxiety of the unknown is stressful. In the most recent episode of the Tim Ferris podcast, author Sebastian Junger cites studies on PTSD that suggest the stress hormone cortisol is reduced in soldiers once they know an attack is going to take place. I know it sounds counterintuitive, but hear me out: Once we know what lies ahead, we’re able to go about eliminating risks rather than blindly anticipating an unknown danger.
The research suggests a kind of metaphysical explanation regarding why the former couple continues to engage in this behavior. She knows he’s going to look at her social media every Monday for the spoilers or simply to see what she’s up to, and he knows she’s going to be sending him the details of his favorite show. It’s created a cycle in which they both know the other’s strategy, and yet they continue to engage.
It’s not that she’s so scorned she wants to ruin a source of pleasure for him — it's more like the dynamic between school children pushing each other or pulling each other’s hair when they have a crush. If either party were really over the relationship, they wouldn’t continue to engage in the cyclical behavior.
I’m interested to learn what will happen to the couple once this season of “Game of Thrones” ends, will they find another show to use as an excuse to remain in each other’s lives or finally walk away? My guess is their story is still being written.