DON’T TELL ME
The Science of Game of Thrones Spoilers: Why They’re a Good Thing
Sunday’s Game of Thrones promises to break the Internet—inevitably leading to spoilers. A new study on why hearing things beforehand actually improves viewing.
Tonight, after only four years and five seasons of HBO’s adaptation, Game of Thrones, showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss are about to catch up and perhaps even pass George R.R. Martin’s telling of his own story.
There’s good reason, though, for fans to stop worrying and love the spoiler.
Martin has taken nearly 20 years to advance the story of his fantasy epic, A Song of Ice and Fire, to where it is now, and there are still at least two mammoth-sized novels left before he finishes.
It makes sense why some fans might be nervous—some of them have been following this story for more than a decade and have an understandable loyalty to the books, which Benioff and Weiss have been hurrying through. While the show devoted one season each for the first two books and two entire seasons for the explosive third, Benioff and Weiss reduced the material for the fourth and fifth books—11 years of Martin’s work—to this single most recent season.
It was a controversial decision, but it was the right one. Books four and five stalled the action we wanted to see at the end of book three—Dany invading Westeros with some dragons, the North getting revenge for the death of everyone we grew to love, Stannis messing up either the White Walkers or the Lannisters in King’s Landing, whoever really.
Instead, Martin spent two books introducing new characters and plotlines—pirates! Dorneish wine! Tyrion moping around Essos for hundreds of pages asking about whores and calling himself “Yollo!”—whose only purpose seems to be to set the table for the action we really care about.
Though they seem too fond of injecting sexual violence into the show, Benioff and Weiss have otherwise streamlined two clunky and massive books into a season centering on characters we care about and setting the pieces where they need to be on the board. This means, though, that the show is nearly guaranteed to finish the story before Martin does.
In other words, spoilers are inevitable.
Everyone had more or less just assumed that spoilers are bad for as long as they’ve existed—otherwise they wouldn’t be called spoilers. It wasn’t until 2011, though, that anyone thought to actually test whether spoilers ruin things as much as popular culture likes to suppose. Nicholas Christenfield and Jonathan Leavitt, researchers at the University of California, San Diego, gave students stories and spoiled some of them.
This didn’t stop students from enjoying what they read, though—in fact, knowing how the story ended made students like the stories more, whether that story was a mystery (like Agatha Christie’s A Chess Problem), whether it had an ironic twist (like Ambrose Bierce’s An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge), or simply whether it had an evocative ending (like John Updike’s Plumbing).
The researchers had a few ideas about why being spoiled might counterintuitively make stories more enjoyable. One possibility is that readers can pay more attention to the aesthetic qualities of the work if they’re less busy trying to figure out what happens.
Another possibility is that a story might flow more smoothly if we have the endpoint in mind—we’re able to focus on the important details and prune the extraneous ones, and the significance of certain plot points become clear and foreshadowing is more apparent. We become able to experience the same sorts of things we enjoy on a reread or second viewing, but the first time around.
While spoilers might come at the expense of some tension and uncertainty, there’s something pleasing about the experience of a story clicking and coming together just right. Cognitive scientists call such feelings of subjective ease “processing fluency.”
Christenfield and Leavitt tested these two competing explanations a few years after their first study, and they found support for processing fluency as an explanation of why spoilers make stories more fun. If we enjoy spoiled stories more because spoilers makes stories easier to read, the logic goes, then it shouldn’t do any good to spoil a story that’s already as easy to read as it can be.
That’s exactly what the researchers found. When college students read spoiled stories that were complex, they enjoyed them more and rated than easier to follow. When they read spoiled versions of stories intended for teenagers, though, they didn’t find them easier to digest and didn’t like them any more than the unspoiled versions.
There’s a broader question here, as well—if spoilers make stories more enjoyable, why is everyone so afraid of them? No one is really sure. It might be that we just tend to be generally bad at predicting what we’ll enjoy—psychologists call this “affective forecasting.” It get’s even more complicated, since spoilers fundamentally change how we experience a story, because you can’t compare your experience of a spoiled story to how much you would have enjoyed it, unspoiled.
In this way, being spoiled is a kind of transformative experience—and there’s been a recent debate among philosophers and psychologists about whether and how it’s even possible to make rational decisions about such experiences.
On the whole, though, it’s very easy to notice that a spoiler has killed some suspense of a scene, but it’s less obvious how knowing a spoiler made you better appreciate the rest of the action. So even if spoilers make us enjoy stories more, it’s not even obvious we’d notice it. It’s no wonder, then, that our perceptions of spoilers are skewed.
This isn’t to say that fans should actively seek out spoilers, but we should hopefully feel more at ease at the prospect of being spoiled. If tonight’s episode breaks the Internet, as promised, at least we know it won’t break the books.