4 Surprising Things That Actually Make Entertainment Better
Life’s little pleasures—going to the movies, a nice dinner, binge-watching TV—often come with their own challenges. Commercials disrupt your Law and Order marathon, commenters on the Internet are ruining the Gone Girl twist, and single-digit temperatures make a trip to the theater seem like an expedition to the Arctic. But, it turns out that these things have silver linings—believe it or not, they can actually make your entertainment consumption more enjoyable. Here's how.
1. Spoilers Don’t Actually Spoil Anything
No one likes having a book or movie or TV show ruined for them by hearing the ending before they’ve gotten to it. I have Game of Thrones-watching friends who run from the room whenever the books come up in conversation, and I've been scolded in Internet comments for giving away (very vague) info about Breaking Bad. To the spoiler-obsessed who want to experience stories with no prior knowledge, psychologists Jonathan Leavitt and Nicholas Christenfeld say, “Relax.” Spoilers, it turns out (Spoiler Alert!) don’t actually spoil a story. Counterintuitively, they might actually make stories more enjoyable.
A few years ago, Leavitt and Christenfeld gathered a few hundred undergrads at the University of California, San Diego for three experiments in which the participants were asked to read different kinds of short stories: ones with a twist ending (like Ambrose Bierce’s “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”), mysteries (like one of Agatha Christie’s Poirot stories) and “more evocative literary stories” (like something by John Updike or Raymond Carver). During each experiment, the students read three stories; one was presented in its original form, one was given an introductory paragraph written by the psychologists that revealed the ending, and one had the spoiler paragraph embedded in the beginning of the actual story. When the students finished their reading sessions, they rated their enjoyment of the stories on a scale of 1 to 10.
When Leavitt and Christenfeld looked at the students’ ratings, they found that, across all three experiments, people liked the stories more when they knew the ending before they even started reading (slipping the spoilers into the text didn’t have much effect one way or the other). For every story except one (Anton Chekhov’s “The Bet”), the average rating was higher for the spoiled version than for the original.
“Writers use their artistry to make stories interesting, to engage readers, and to surprise them, but we found that giving away these surprises makes readers like stories better,” they say in their paper. “This was true whether the spoiler revealed a twist at the end … or solved the crime.”
Deciphering the reason for this was beyond the scope of the study, but Leavitt and Christenfeld had a few ideas. First, they think that, instead of robbing a story of suspense, spoilers might increase its tension because the reader knows something the characters don’t. Reading Oedipus Rex while aware of the ending, for example, “may heighten the pleasurable tension caused by the disparity in knowledge between the omniscient reader and the character marching to his doom.” And besides, there’s more to suspense than just the plot points; tension is also created by the way an author gets us to the outcome and how the characters react to it.
It’s also possible that a spoiled story is more enjoyable because thinking too much about the outcome can distract you from the details of the story or the quality of the writing. Knowing the ending, the researchers say, gets rid of that distraction and lets readers focus on a deeper understanding of the story.
2. Background Noise Can Improve a Meal
When you eat dinner at a restaurant, you mostly take in the experience through taste, touch, smell, and sight. You appreciate the flavors and aromas of the food, the way it feels in your mouth, the way it looks on your plate, and how the dining room appears. But sound is important, too, even if you don’t eat with your ears. A noisy dining room or a cranked stereo at a restaurant not only drowns out conversation, but too much background noise also dulls a taster's perception of sweetness and saltiness (researchers speculate that umami may be the only basic taste that’s “sound-proof"—hence the popularity of Bloody Marys and tomato juice on airplanes) and affects the overall enjoyment of a meal.
But as Chicago chef Michael Kornick has said, “The second worse thing to a restaurant that is too noisy is a restaurant that is too quiet.” When there’s too little ambient noise or no music, conversations at other tables—a major source of annoyance for diners—dominate. There’s a sweet spot in between, though, and researchers from Purdue University think that the right level of ambient noise and music can make dining out better for both customers and restaurants.
In their study, the researchers found that diners who ate at a restaurant where the background noise was around 58 decibels and the music was from 62 to 67 decibels enjoyed their meals more and were more likely to stay longer, spend more money, return to the restaurant, and recommend it to friends than diners who heard only the restaurant’s ambient noise, or that noise plus louder or softer music.
3. Commercial Breaks Make TV More Enjoyable
Perhaps we shouldn't be so quick to zoom through commercials. The little interruptions, psychologist and marketing researcher Leif Nelson has found, can actually improve the show for you once it returns.
The trick, Nelson and his team write, is that people adjust to things they have prolonged exposure to. An annoying sound becomes bearable after a while. The best meal you’ve ever eaten becomes sort of humdrum by the tenth time you’ve had it. Good and bad experiences both give you diminishing returns. Scientists have found the effect applies to everything from eating ice cream to listening to a favorite song to winning the lottery.
In six experiments, Nelson found that it’s the same with TV. He had a group of people watch the old sitcom Taxi. Half of them saw the original broadcast and the other half watched a version with the commercials cut out. When it was over, he had everyone rate how much they enjoyed the show and asked them how it compared to another sitcom they’d all seen, Happy Days. The group that saw Taxi with its commercial breaks intact both enjoyed it more and preferred it to Happy Days, while the ad-free group didn’t like the episode as much and said they preferred Fonzie. In additional experiments with short video clips, nature documentaries, and other media, people more often enjoyed the interrupted version more than the continuous one.
“People often adapt to the experience of watching television such that each successive minute is slightly less enjoyable than the previous one,” the researchers say. Commercials come in and shake that up. Even if the ads themselves are annoying or not for something you’re interested in, the interruptions disrupt your adaptation to watching the show and partially “reset” your enjoyment of it to a higher level.
4. Cold Weather Helps You Warm to Romance Movies
When winter comes and the weather outside grows frightful, people seek warmth. We throw on our flannel pajamas and crawl under a thick blanket. And when we turn to Netflix for a day of hibernation, researchers say, the weather makes us more likely to seek out, and enjoy, romantic movies.
A large body of research shows that our physical and sensory feelings affect our choices and judgments as consumers, even when they don’t seem especially relevant to a given choice. If the aisles at the grocery store are very narrow or the store is crowded, for example, shoppers react to the feeling of confinement by choosing a wider variety of products.
Something similar happens when we feel cold, according to consumer behavior researchers in Hong Kong and Colorado. We react by looking for warmth, which influences our preference for movies. In four experiments in which they manipulated the ambient temperature of a room and people's feeling of warmth and coldness with hot or iced tea, the researchers found that people who were cold reported enjoying romance movies more and were more willing to pay to see them. (The effect didn’t apply to people who don't associate romance movies with psychological warmth or people who were made aware that it was cold, suggesting that if romantic movies don’t “feel warm” or someone is aware that the temperature is playing with his choices, he discounts the physical feeling of coldness and corrects for its influence.) Next, the researchers analyzed online movie rentals and compared people’s picks to the temperature at the time and their reports of how warm or cold they felt when they made the rental. When it was colder out, romance movie rentals went up.
When the temperature dips we don’t just want physical warmth, the researchers think, but also psychological warmth, so we “warm up with love” and watch love stories and rom-coms.
…And One That Doesn’t
There’s really no way around this one: waiting for stuff—whether it’s the check at the end of a meal or the line to get on a ride or into a theater—is “time-consuming, annoying, and incredibly frustrating.” There’s no hidden benefit to waiting, and it doesn’t make us enjoy whatever we’re waiting for more. It’s often the opposite, actually. People who are made to wait tend to be less satisfied with the service and products they ultimately receive, and are less likely to be repeat customers.
There are a few tricks, though, that help us remember the wait as a little less awful than it actually was. Our memory and evaluation of the wait hinges on the “affect recorded at termination,” says consumer behavior researcher Ziv Carmon. In other words, it’s the end of the wait that matters most, and if we’re happy when we reach the head of the line, we remember the whole wait more positively.
One way businesses boost our end-of-wait mood is by beating our expectations. “All else being equal, people who wait less than they anticipated leave happier than those who wait longer than expected,” Alex Stone writes in the New York Times. “This is why Disney, the universally acknowledged master of applied queuing psychology, overestimates wait times for rides, so that its guests—never customers, always guests—are pleasantly surprised when they ascend Space Mountain ahead of schedule.”