For those who watch Game of Thrones but missed Sunday night’s new episode, the office on a Monday morning is a spoiler minefield: Every co-worker you pass could potentially reveal crucial plot points and, in your mind, ruin your experience of watching the show. This could be enough to make you anxious all day, avoiding colleagues at lunch or in the hallway, and staying off social media for the day.
This is “spoiler stress” — a term Thrive is coining to describe the intense anxiety and stress some people experience when trying to avoid spoilers for a TV show or movie. Stress around spoilers is nothing new — it’s something we have collectively experienced since serialized fiction became popular in Victorian times and readers got upset when critics would divulge too much of the plot of a story in their review. But now, with the internet fueling both rabid fan bases and outrage culture, it becomes a recipe for stress — and worse.
On Monday, a Domino’s restaurant employee in Texas was written a citation after he assaulted a co-worker for revealing a spoiler for the Avengers: Endgame movie. If we’ve become so upset about learning plot details about a movie before we’ve seen it that we’ve started attacking other people as retaliation, spoiler stress has officially gone too far.
So why does this happen? Why do some people care so much about spoilers that it can cause rifts between partners, friends, and family members? Are we wrong to want the simple pleasure of finding out what happens next in a compelling narrative, or have we gone to an extreme where we’re prioritizing fictional worlds over our own? As it turns out, it’s a complicated combination of how our brain responds to on-screen resolutions, our personality, and the genre of entertainment. And yes, there is research to back this up.
Your brain on spoilers
We all watch TV and movies for different reasons — including as an escape, to learn something, or to experience suspense — but, according to Judith E. Rosenbaum, Ph.D., assistant professor of communication and journalism at the University of Maine, most people believe that their enjoyment of a show comes from the resolution of an unknown, and as a result, spoilers are awful. “This belief is based on the ‘excitation transfer theory,’ which argues that the bigger the threat, the more excitement people will experience, and the more enjoyment they will experience when everything turns out OK for the characters,” she tells Thrive.
Even after we finish watching a TV show or movie, we still feel that enjoyment from the threat being resolved — and as a result, attribute that good feeling to that resolution, Rosenbaum explains. “This leads to the belief that spoilers will undermine that suspense, because now you know the threat is not really real, and that reduces the arousal, and that reduces the enjoyment,” she notes.
But in reality, the impact of spoilers on enjoyment is not that straightforward. In fact, when it comes down to it, we’re really bad at predicting how watching TV shows and movies will really make us feel — something called effective forecasting. “We think we can forecast our enjoyment, and we think that plot outcome really matters, but research has found that that is just not always the case,” Rosenbaum says. The first study to look into this was carried by psychologists at the University of California-San Diego, and found that spoilers actually have a positive impact on enjoyment. According to the authors, when you spoil a narrative, it creates more room in your brain to make sense of — and enjoy — the rest of the story.
The genre of a movie or TV show can also impact how we react to spoilers. In a recent study by Rosenbaum and Benjamin K. Johnson, Ph.D. of the University of Florida, they compared comedy with fantasy and found that when you spoil comedy, it ruins your enjoyment, but when you spoil fantasy it doesn’t. According to Rosenbaum, when you ruin the punchline of a joke, it’s not as funny anymore, but when you consider that we continue to enjoy stories in the Marvel Universe that have been around for decades, we don’t seem to stress out about spoilers as much in the fantasy genre.
The stress of spoilers
So if spoilers can actually allow us to get more out of a TV show or movie, why do they stress us out so much? Recent studies carried out by Rosenbaum and Johnson discovered that the way we respond to spoilers is tied to our personality traits. They found that people who don’t necessarily need to think through complex, abstract problems while being entertained preferred spoiled stories, Rosenbaum explains. On the other hand, those who get enjoyment out of experiencing a wide range of emotions while watching TV shows or movies tend to enjoy unspoiled stories more. So for those who enjoy unspoiled TV shows and movies more, even the threat of spoilers can potentially be stressful.
In addition, some research has shown that exposure to spoilers increases something called “reactance” — the negative feelings people experience when they’re faced with a loss of freedom, like when something or someone takes your ability to make a decision away. However, Rosenbaum says that other research has found that spoilers do not impact reactance at all. Either way, this doesn’t change the fact that we have been trained to believe that spoilers will make us enjoy something less, and that they take away our freedom to enjoy a story without outside influences. “In other words, we have been socialized to expect reactance when exposed to spoilers, even if this might not actually be the case,” Rosenbaum explains, noting that even the word “spoil” alone has a negative connotation.
Interestingly, in some cases, the exact opposite is true, and spoilers can actually reduce our stress and increase our enjoyment of a TV show or movie by allowing us to protect ourselves from the impact of an undesirable outcome. In a 2018 study, researchers looked at the series finale of the sitcom How I Met Your Mother, and found that the people who had read fan theories that correctly predicted how the show would end before they saw the episode experienced reduced stress and increased enjoyment when they watched it, compared to those who went in without being mentally prepared.
How to reduce spoiler stress
Now that we have a better idea of why spoilers stress us out so much — and that in reality, spoilers usually don’t ruin our enjoyment of a TV show or movie — that understanding in itself may help us stay calm the next time someone at work mentions what happened on the most recent episode of Game of Thrones.
Ultimately, we need to reframe how we think about spoilers — especially in terms of their ability to reduce stress when used as a form of self-protection and emotionally preparing someone for a tragic or sad storyline or plot twist. Given that our tolerance for spoilers is largely based on our personality traits, Rosenbaum suggests using that information as a way of reducing spoiler stress.
“The key is to know yourself. If you are the kind of person who goes looking for spoilers, then they probably won’t affect you. But if you get really upset with the idea of Endgame being spoiled, then stay off your social media for a while,” she says. “And realize that you can still get enjoyment from a show even if you know the ending.”
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