A study with a surprising twist
In one study, psychologists Jonathan Leavitt and Nicholas Christenfeld had 819 undergraduate students read short stories written by well-known authors like Roald Dahl and Anton Chekhov.
Before reading each story, some students first read a paragraph that appeared to inadvertently spoil the outcome of the story. Others read the same story without spoilers. After reading the stories, the students rated how much they enjoyed them.
The researchers found that, on average, students thought the spoiled stories to be slightly more enjoyable than the unspoiled stories. After breaking down the results by story type, the results stayed the same, even for mysteries and plots with surprising twists -- stories where you might expect that much of the enjoyment comes from not knowing how the story ends.
The satisfaction of knowing what to expect
It may come as a surprise that being exposed to a spoiler could cause someone to enjoy a film even more.
One possible explanation has to do with the psychological concept of "fluency." The more fluent something is -- whether it's a story, a song, or a face -- the easier it is to process and understand. And many psychology studies have shown that the easier something is to process, the more likely people are to like it.
One way that fluency can make a story more enjoyable is that it reduces the need to make (possibly incorrect) inferences about where the story is going or what a character is thinking or feeling. You've probably experienced this when listening to music. The first time you hear a song, you might not think it's anything special. But after the song becomes more familiar and you can anticipate how it will unfold, you realize that you really like it. Because the song has become more fluent, you've found yourself enjoying it more.
In a follow-up study, Leavitt and Christenfeld tested this fluency explanation by repeating their experiment on a different group of 240 undergraduate students. This time, the researchers used stories written for junior or high school students that use common tropes and plot devices. They reasoned that, for these simple and fairly predictable stories, fluency should already be high, and spoilers would have no effect on enjoyment if fluency was truly at work.
As predicted, they found that students rated these stories equally enjoyable with or without spoilers.