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Do Spoiler Alerts Make you stupid?

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Spoilers could supposedly better your experience

On Tuesday the 23rd of November, the article: “Spoiler Alert: Spoiler Alert Are Making Us ALL Stupid”, was published on Wired by Jason Kehe. Throughout this article, the author underlines the fact that spoilers shouldn’t be an issue for any of us. 

Through a few studies, it has been declared that spoilers don’t ruin your experience, they enhance it by contributing to what is called processing fluency (Leavitt & Christenfeld, 20112013). The processing fluency is: “a cognitive bias in which our opinion of something is influenced by how easily our brain processes it and understands it.” (convertize.com). Allegedly, this would therefore forge better enjoyment vis-à-vis the person hearing, watching, or reading the narrative.

According to the fan base of the television show “Lost”, some qualified spoilers as: “an interesting and enjoyable facet of the entire media experience”(Gray & Mittell, 2007).

As reported by different studies, spoilers aren’t as bad as some could think, and they would somehow be beneficial to us. Therefore, should society tolerate spoilers? Is the ever-going trend of spoiler alerts completely nonsensical? Should spoiling stories be normalized?

Spoilers are prone to ruin the narrative

The answer is no. One of the reasons why watching a movie or reading a story without knowing the outcome is so enjoyable, is because it brings a sense of realness to the whole experience. Anything could happen. According to the psychology professor at Pace University, Thalia Goldstein, the conscious parts of our brain are aware of the realness of the movie, whereas the more primitive parts aren’t, allegedly making the moment more intense.

Furthermore, anticipation is key to optimizing many activities. Daniel Gilbert, a Harvard psychology professor, explains in his book that: “Forestalling pleasure is an inventive technique for getting double the juice from half the fruit.” Along the same lines, D. Zillmann believes that suspense delivers more enjoyment and ultimately, gives the reader, spectator, or listener a better experience. Speculating on what the outcome could be, keeps our brain stimulated, and therefore constitutes an intrigue for the unknown. 

In 2016, Yan D. and Tsang A.S. demonstrated that a narrative with a spoiled plot twist created a “focusing illusion”. This meant that once the spectator is exposed to the outcome of a story, his mind would be drawn to that aspect. Thus, this would mean ruining the narrative, as less attention would be paid towards the plot development.

Likewise, people with no knowledge of the conclusion of the story are more likely to “engage in process-focused thinking, which involves elaboration on the step-by-step process”(Trope & Liberman, 2010; Zhao, Hoeffler, & Zauberman, 2007). If anything, discovering a story makes you smarter.

The bottom line is that exploring a story you have never heard about grants you the opportunity of processing every step, every detail of it, and being able to put yourself in the character’s shoes. As Johnson B. K. and Rosenbaum, J. E. clarified in 2015: “we find that approaching a narrative for the first time, without knowledge of the ending, can, after all, help enhance enjoyment, appreciation, and transportation.”

So, spoilers: an advantage or a liability?

You could be tempted to ask me: “So, spoiler alerts are good for us, right?”, and I would answer: “Of course, spoilers shouldn’t even exist!”. Yet, as you already know, we are all entitled to our own opinions, and mine is (unfortunately…) not the universal truth. In fact, as individuals, our personality determines if spoilers are beneficial for us. For some “Our worst fears lie in anticipation” (Don Draper in “Mad Men”), for others, “Anticipation was the soul of enjoyment” (Elizabeth Gaskell).

To understand the polarization of feelings regarding spoilers, it is important to explain two key concepts: the need for cognition (NFC) and the need for affect (NFA). NFC is the “tendency to engage in and enjoy effortful cognitive endeavors” (Cacioppo, Petty, & Kao, 1984), and NFA is the “individual’s motivation to approach or avoid emotion-inducing situations” (Maio & Esses, 2001). Throughout recent studies, it has been proved that people with a lower NFC preferred spoiled stories, whereas people with a higher NFA favored narratives that were unspoiled (Thomas A. Daniel, Jeffrey S. Katz, 2018). In other words, individuals who have sparse gratification while thinking through narratives will probably prefer spoiled stories, and those who are looking forward to feeling the emotions will choose unspoiled stories.

In conclusion: yes or no to spoiler alerts?

Yes of course! Those who prefer spoiled stories are free to read any articles, whereas those who try to avoid them still have a high chance of having future narratives ruined. Spoiler alerts are a respectful way of letting others know that they have the choice of discovering the outcome of a narrative by themself. 

To reduce the frustration of those who avoid getting spoiled and those who avoid seeing spoiler alerts, technological solutions should exist. Imagine, on YouTube, Twitter, or Instagram the possibility of choosing to see or not to see spoiler-sensitive content. Similar options exist today: Video Blockers, Social Fixer, Spoiler Protection 2.0, Unspoiler or Shut Up. All these solutions work thanks to one strategy, which is keywords. The user can decide to ban some words, and the content that contains them will not be displayed.

A more optimized solution was worked on in 2013: “Spoiler alert: Machine learning approaches to detect social media posts with revelatory information.” (Boyd-Graber, J., Glasgow, K., Zajac, J. S.), which explained how machine learning could be the solution to such a challenge. Artificial intelligence is yet to be introduced to our world, but as for today, please use spoiler alerts.

Thomas Duverneix-Long (2021)

Sources used:

  • Yan, D., Tsang, A. S. (2016) The misforecasted spoiler effect: Underlying mechanism and boundary conditions. Journal of Consumer Psychology 26(1): 81–90
  • Zillmann. (1995, January 1). Mechanisms of emotional involvement with drama
  • Johnson, B. K., Rosenbaum, J. E. (2015) Spoiler alert: Consequences of narrative spoilers for dimensions of enjoyment, appreciation, and transportation. Communication Research 42(8): 1068–1088. doi:10.1177/0093650214564051.
  • https://www.wired.com/story/spoiler-alerts-are-making-us-all-stupid/
  • https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2013/03/scientific-explanations-for-why-spoilers-are-so-horrible/274227/
  • Leavitt, J. D., Christenfeld, N. J. (2011) Story spoilers don’t spoil stories. Psychological Science 22(9): 1152–1154.
  • Rosenbaum, J. E., Johnson, B. K. (2016) Who’s afraid of spoilers: Need for cognition, need for affect, and narrative selection and enjoyment. Psychology of Popular Media Culture 5(3): 273–289. doi:10.1037/ppm0000076.
  • Levine, W. H., Betzner, M., Autry, K. S. (2016) The effects of spoilers on the enjoyment of short stories. Discourse Processes 53(7): 513–531.
  • Reber, R., Winkielman, P., Schwarz, N. (1998) Effects of perceptual fluency on affective judgments. Psychological Science 9(1): 45–48.
  • https://www.highsnobiety.com/p/how-to-avoid-spoilers/
  • (Spoilers Affect the Enjoyment of Television Episodes but Not Short Stories – Thomas A. Daniel, Jeffrey S. Katz, 2019, 2021)
  • Boyd-Graber, J., Glasgow, K., Zajac, J. S. (2013) Spoiler alert: Machine learning approaches to detect social media posts with revelatory information. Proceedings of the American Society for Information Science and Technology 50(1): 1–9.
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