Irrational Animals: a neuroscience take on the news

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I like being spoiled rotten

Martha Gill's Irrational Animals column.

Spoiler alert: he doesn't make it. Photograph: Getty Images

If you haven’t yet seen Titanic, I won’t spoil the ending for you. Just try not to invest emotionally in the boat, or the blond guy. At least one of them will go on to make The Man in the Iron Mask.

Some people become quite touchy about coming across “spoilers” before watching a film or when immersed in a TV series. Personally, I quite like to know what I’m letting myself in for. I also prefer to jump around in books – skipping ahead a few chapters, or reading the end first, just so I know I’m heading towards a good bit. It helps me get through descriptions of military techniques, or sunsets, or the part where Jack teaches Rose to “spit like a man”.

This has been known to annoy people, but a recent study is very much on my side. It finds that I’m simply getting the best out of the story: too much narrative suspense can turn us off, rather than hooking us in. In fact, when following a plot, we don’t like surprises any more than the passengers on the Titanic did. 

The study conducted by Nicolas Christenfeld and Jonathan Leavitt took 30 undergraduates and gave them a mix of short stories to read. There were three kinds: mysteries, literary stories, and stories with an ironic twist. Everyone got one unaltered story, another with a spoiler in the preface, and a third with the spoiler woven into the narrative. When they measured the subjects’ levels of enjoyment, the researchers found something odd.  The spoiled stories were far more pleasurable than the unspoiled.

Why was this? The researchers thought it meant that plots are just excuses for showing off great writing. The enjoyable bit is the way the story is told, the plot itself an irritating distraction. Best to get all that wearying intrigue out of the way right at the start.

They thought this could also apply to film. Story telling is always a mix of tension and resolution, but knowing the iceberg definitely “does a Trenton Oldfield” in the end frees us up to appreciate the more subtle tensions – those between characters, and those between shots. It also gives us the pleasure of anticipation. We really don’t like having to worry about whether the boy gets the girl, or whether the villain dies, or whether the gob that Kate Winslet spits off the balcony and onto the snooty lady’s hat will be adequately apologised for later (no).

Take note, film makers. You may have enjoyed making Inception (another great Leonardo film), but that’s absolutely no reason to make the rest of us suffer. Go home, think about what you have done, then remake Pride and Prejudice, again. It’s what we all want.