Discover more from mixed feelings
scientifically speaking, spoilers don't matter
welcome to strong feelings! Essays by writers we love, in which they share their most impassioned opinions on a given subject. If you love our usual advice column — don’t worry it’s not going anywhere. This month for strong feelings, culture writer Aamina Inayat Khan unpacks our culture’s obsession with #nospoilers.
Episode 3 of the fourth and final season of Succession would’ve been a good one to watch live. *Spoiler Alert* It’s the episode where media mogul Logan Roy suddenly, and almost surprisingly, dies. We’ve known it was probably coming since the pilot — the show is literally called Succession. And yet, when it happened, there was a sense of disruption and unpreparedness that was as vivid for the audience as it was for the characters. To this day, the show’s fans remember wondering if it was real or if it was yet another stunt Logan was sick enough to pull. If you were even a few minutes late to the party, a mere swipe on any social platform would have “spoiled” the news for you.
But so what? Does that sense of unpreparedness come from not knowing it was coming (we kind of did), or really fucking good writing?
We belong to a culture of live-sharing screenshots, lines of dialogue, and memes. Spoilers are in our faces more intensely than spammy pop-up ads in the dial-up days. That is to say, they’re annoying and people hate them. But what is it about them that people hate so much, and why has anti-spoiler sentiment reached such an intense apex?
On Twitter (and Tumblr, in a bygone era), where reside only “reason” and “righteousness” — where there needs to be a villain of the day — spoilers give us citizens a common enemy. We know that algorithms are skewed to reward strong opinions and reactions, and of those, to favor negative ones. But in a world where hard-held opinions are made to feel like the most principled, sometimes the hottest takes are the ones that suggest that most things aren’t as big of a deal as we make them out to be, and, spoiler alert: that spoiler-shaped monster in your room is really just a shadow.
To be fair, our online-ness has completely changed the ecosystem in which we consume art. Online, there is a sense of anxiety to respond, to opine, to re-announce your presence. So now, albums and music videos are reviewed on Fridays at midnight, prioritizing speed over thoughtfulness. Comments about TV shows and movies start trickling in by the next morning, and by lunch, your most in-the-know oomfs are making layered jokes about them. If you’re not clued in enough to understand, try your best not to show it.
Those who avoid spoilers religiously cite a number of reasons, like the idea that it ruins the experience of the story or that it’s not how the writers intended it to be consumed. But neither of those things is necessarily true.
The field of psychology has only studied stories and the way they make us feel for a few decades. But there is a phenomenon, “Narrative Transportation,” coined by psychologist Richard Gerrig in 1993, which describes the feeling of experiencing a story so intensely that you feel like you’re living in it. Dr. Anna Lisa Cohen, a psychologist at Yeshiva University in New York City, designed an experiment to test whether having a movie spoiled disrupts our ability to engage. She found that it didn’t: the subjects who knew the ending were, by her measure, equally engaged in the suspense and drama as the ones who didn’t.
And that makes sense. Regardless of if a story arrives with a play-by-play prologue or if the writing is on the wall in more subtle ways, most stories are predictable by design. Even the strongest stories often follow genre and craft conventions. They play with and subvert audience expectations in ways that we can still usually see coming. We keep hoping Marianne and Connell figure it out, knowing they’re bound to keep missing each other, in the same way we watch Titanic, hoping it doesn’t sink. And the writers know that. For, advice columnist and author of Hola Papi, the story and the plot are two different things. He’s currently working on a graphic novel, wherein the primary relationship in the story heads toward a tragic end.
“I don’t think it’s going to spoil any part of my book to let people know that. I don’t think that, in and of itself, is an interesting thing to share,” Brammer said. “I think it’s a matter of being able to pull it off — to be able to make people feel a certain thing. [It’s not about] getting a fact in someone’s head. The former is more important.”
In 2023, spoiler complaints have a hotness about them that almost turns spoiling into an ethical problem. It’s an anger that, at times, feels too exaggerated to be sincere. “It’s like a dogmatic thing. Like, how dare you share this information?” Brammer said. “That is an increasingly popular approach to art in general where there’s this really firm etiquette around art. So we have a correct way of digesting things: there’s a right and a wrong way to do it. Spoiler culture kind of fits in with that. People are so interested in what if i’m doing something wrong? or what if this other person is doing something wrong? Even when it comes to things as abstract as a work of art. I don’t know what to say other than, it’s interesting.”
And it is interesting. Dr. Cohen called the preoccupation with spoilers a “cultural artifact.” She’s seen colleagues suggest that the outrage around spoilers might be connected to something called “affective forecasting,” our ability to predict our future emotions. In effect, we avoid spoilers because we don’t know how we’re going to feel about them. “We tend to overestimate how intensely we're going to feel about future events, whether it's negative or positive,” she said. “We just are not good at predicting how they're actually going to affect us.”
Another suggestion she offered was that spoilers might feel so inflammatory because they feel like a removal of agency, a personal violation. “There's this perceived sense of loss of control. We lost the freedom to just enjoy ourselves not knowing what's going to happen. So it almost feels like a personal affront.
Perhaps we think we are avoiding notes about the plot, but what we’re really trying to avoid is the noise—the inside jokes, the opinions, the meme cycle, the discourse. There is an anxiety that arrives when everyone starts talking about something you’re on the outside of. A show you’re excited to see becomes a show you’re anxious to see. And that may sound silly, but it’s easy to forget how immersive an experience social media is. It subliminally shapes our views about matters so much more serious than art, even for the freest of thinkers — a kind of loss of control. But when it comes to art, the discourse on our timelines also provides us with parameters to think inside of. To reject those parameters requires an awareness, and subsequent distrust, of them, which isn’t necessarily a place of neutrality either. “If Twitter is already saying, ‘This show is problematic because x,y, and z,’ even if you disagree, you are still sort of agreeing to some nebulous terms about how you’re supposed to approach something,” Brammer said. “Like, if you didn’t know to be on the lookout for this issue, then maybe you wouldn’t have even seen it.”
It’s not uncertainty we’re after, it’s the ability to experience a story with a blank slate. But to be so concerned with the elements of a plot very plainly reduces why art means so much to us. It removes texture, aesthetic, and tone – all pieces of context that fill in the skeleton of a plot with flesh. Those are the parts of stories we hold on to, the things we keep rewriting and revisiting. And it is not the bones on which our obsessions with stories feast. It is the flesh.