Science, bless its heart, has finally gotten down to figuring out why spoilers are such a gut-churningly horrific scourge on society. (I've been e-mailing them for YEARS.) The reason, it seems, is that anticipation, suspension of disbelief, and the exploration of fictional worlds are all deeply intertwined with the way we experience pleasure. And when someone stomps all over those fictional worlds—PEOPLE TALKING ABOUT DOWNTON ABBEY ON TWITTER LIKE WANTON BLAB-HUSSIES—it hurts. Spoilers hurt. Everyone.*
Jennifer Richler at the Atlantic explored the relationship between pleasure, pain, and spoilers (she also experienced the exact same Downton Abbey heartbreak that I did—we should start a support group!), and her conclusions are super interesting:
So what's with our obsession with make-believe? Bloom and others argue that, on some level, we don't distinguish fact from fiction. There's research to back this up: For example, a study found that people refuse to eat a piece of fudge shaped to look like feces, even though they know it's just fudge. Appearance and reality get blurred. We like stories about sex because we like having sex, and somewhere in our minds, the two are the same. As Thalia Goldstein, a psychology professor at Pace University, explained to me, this blurring actually happens at the neurological level: The conscious, thinking parts of our brain tell us that a story isn't real, but the more primitive parts tell us it is.
This research suggests one explanation for why spoilers suck: They remind us that a story is just a story. It's hard to get transported when you already know where you'll end up-in real life you don't have that knowledge.
And, my favorite bit:
There's plenty of research showing that people enjoy the anticipation of something pleasurable as much as-or sometimes even more than-they enjoy the thing itself. That's why a study found that people would rather postpone a free dinner at a French restaurant by a week than have it right away; they want the pleasure of looking forward to the meal. As Harvard psychology professor Daniel Gilbert says in his book Stumbling on Happiness, "Forestalling pleasure is an inventive technique for getting double the juice from half the fruit."
Fulfillment of desire is the cessation of desire! And desiring nothing is a fucking empty bummer of a life.
But there's something else I want to talk to you about today, something very serious, which Richler also briefly touches on. It's the existential pain of secondhand spoilage. Some people actively seek out spoilers. On purpose. One of those people is my boyfriend, who went on Wikipedia and read complete synopses of—just off the top of my head—Game of Thrones, Luther, Carnivale, Sherlock, Misfits, Firefly, and Skins, WHEN WE WERE JUST HALFWAY THROUGH THE FIRST EPISODE. His anxiety about what's going to happen, he says, makes it impossible for him to actually enjoy watching the show.
And I totally respect that—it's certainly not my place to tell other adults that they must find anxiety pleasurable—and honestly I've grown to find it charming. But it does wash out the journey somewhat. I want to watch this unfold with you! I want to share hopes and fears for these characters we both love! I've been pressing him to watch Alias lately, and I just don't know how to cope with the idea that he'll arrive at the end of season two already knowing about that CRAY-CRAY SHIT WITH [REDACTED]. You know???
Anyway, that's obviously just me being a dictator and trying to force my personal TV-watching steez on to another autonomous, fully-formed human being. Whatever, me. Spoiler alert: Television is a magic box full of stories. It's fun no matter how you watch it.
*I would like to also state, for the record, that it is possible to care too much about spoilers. If I mention the name of your favorite show 'round the water cooler, please do not interrupt me and scream in my face, "DUPPP! DUPPPPPP! NOPE. NO SPOILERS. HAVEN'T SEEN IT YET. NO SPOILERS." First of all, you are presuming that I am a barbarian who doesn't respect the code of spoilage. Rude. And second of all, grown-up humans do not yell in each other's faces because of trivial details involving the Dowager Countess. I mean, I accidentally found out that [REDACTED] was a Cylon (SERIOUSLY!?!?!?!) when I was still mid-season-1 on Battlestar Galactica. I survived. Also, get a grip. You sound like a drunk sea lion.