While waiting in line outside bookstores for the sixth Harry Potter novel to be distributed in 2005, fans of the boy wizard began to hear cries of “Snape kills Dumbledore!” Some readers who had seen leaked scans of advance copies online decided to drive around and shout spoilers at people who hadn’t even gotten their hands on the title.
It was cruel. There may have been tears. But was it actually spoiling the experience of reading the book?
For the journal Psychological Science, psychologists Jonathan Leavitt and Nicholas Christenfeld published a study in 2011 examining how the enjoyment of stories can be influenced by how much a reader knows about the plot in advance. The authors took 819 subjects from the University of California, San Diego and had them read short stories broken into three distinct categories: stories with “twist” endings in the O. Henry mold, mysteries, and narratives that were more focused on internal character development and literary flourish than big plot turns.
Each reader got three stories by established authors like Roald Dahl and Agatha Christie. Some had an introductory paragraph spoiling the outcome; others had a paragraph that appeared to be part of the story spoiling it; a third was presented as-is with no additions. The subjects were asked to rate their enjoyment on a scale of 1 to 10.
Readers tended to rate spoiled stories no differently than unspoiled ones—in fact, they were rated slightly higher. “In all three story types, incorporating spoiler text into stories had no effect on how much they were liked,” the authors wrote.
They speculated that knowing outcomes in advance created a different kind of suspense for the reader—one in which they had more information than the characters did. In a follow-up study [PDF], Leavitt and Christenfeld argued that “fluency,” or a familiarity with a story’s beats, can allow the reader to pay more attention to other details. If you’ve watched Star Wars 12 times, the movie has obviously been “spoiled”—but that allows you to focus your attention on the creature designs or background characters.
The authors admit the studies don’t account for the kind of anticipatory thrill that comes with the release of an “event” movie or book—a months-long (or even years-long) sustained suspense that can sometimes be more satisfying than the fiction itself. While science might insist spoilers don’t really matter, shouting them to kids in line at a Harry Potter release party is probably not the best way to test that theory.