I’ve already seen Avengers: Endgame. I saw it days ago at an advanced screening, and I’ve been sitting on the secrets for days. People who know that I’ve seen it start conversations in one of two ways: “Don’t tell me anything, not even a reaction,” or, “Hey, does Spider-Man survive?” Regardless of the questions, I keep my face as stoic as possible while the words “Don’t Spoil the Endgame” robotically echo throughout my brain.
It’s the mantra members of the Marvel Cinematic Universe have adopted, slapping it in hashtags at the end of tweets, emblazoning it on shareable graphics, repeating it in PSAs. Filmmakers Joe and Anthony Russo even wrote a letter requesting that fans keep the secrets even after the movie hits theaters so that other fans — fans who couldn’t make it to the earliest screenings — could still fully and completely enjoy the “surprising and emotionally powerful conclusion to the Infinity Saga.”
But according to science, the term “spoiler” is actually a bit of a misnomer. As University of California San Diego Professor Nicholas Christenfeld put it, “Spoilers don’t.”
In 2011, Christenfeld and his co-author Jonathan Leavitt published a study in which they tested how spoilers affected reader enjoyment on short stories in three categories: ironic-twist stories, mysteries, and literary stories. Contrary to our gut reaction, they found that in all categories, knowing spoilers actually enhanced enjoyment.
The simplest way to explain this is that stories aren’t about the destination; they’re about the journey. “Basically, a plot is like a coat hanger that displays the garment, which is the play or the TV show or the movie, whatever it is,” Christenfeld told MTV News. “It’s just necessary to have some structure, a framework to display it, but you don’t say the coat hanger’s critical to the pleasure — it’s just a device to enable you to appreciate the artistry, the drama, the human pathos, and so on.”
The idea is that knowing that framework ahead of time frees up some space in your brain — where unspoiled-you would be thinking, “What’s happening? What does this mean? Where is this plot taking us?” — to focus on those other pleasing aspects of the story.
Furthering that thought, the more complex a story’s plot, the more positively spoilers impact enjoyment. On the side of low-level cognition, like books someone might read in elementary school, Christenfeld found, in a separate study from the one mentioned previously, that spoilers had no real effect. They didn’t hurt enjoyment, and they didn’t enhance it either.
As for higher level cognition, Judith E. Rosenbaum, now Assistant Professor at University of Maine, examined how leaked Game of Thrones spoilers impacted the viewing experience and found that people who were exposed to the spoilers enjoyed the Season 5 storyline more than those who didn’t.
“That is connected to the idea of mental models — how you make sense of characters in a storyline. Sometimes spoilers can help you build a mental model that makes it easier to process what’s going on, and that increases your enjoyment of the show,” Rosenbaum explained. While examining the effects of spoilers across different genres, Rosenbaum also found that in general, fantasy stories, including Marvel movies, tend to be enjoyed more when spoiled.
So that would lead us to believe I’m not doing you any favors by not telling you the fate of the Avengers, and I might even be doing a disservice to you, because now you’ll be so concerned with organizing the plot points that you won’t be able to fully appreciate the nuances of Captain America’s butt.
Unless your enjoyment doesn’t hinge on "America's ass."
In another study, Rosenbaum and Benjamin K. Johnson sought to find out who likes spoilers and who doesn’t. They found that people who have a low need for cognition — or people who don’t want to overthink the plot — prefer spoiled stories, while those with a high need for effect — or people who like to experience emotions — prefer unspoiled stories. Separately, using a different scale for enjoyment than Christenfeld used in 2011, the duo found that unspoiled stories are rated as more moving than spoiled stories.
The emotional aspect feels particularly pertinent to Avengers: Endgame, given that a large portion of the fanbase has dedicated 11 years-worth of emotional resources to these characters and to the fandom overall.
“We do want to experience emotional events together rather than by ourselves,” UCLA clinical psychologist and avid Marvel fan Andrea Letamendi said. For people who have found a sense of community within the fandom, stumbling upon spoilers can be an isolating experience — there’s just no one to process your emotions with. But saving the surprises for the theater can be really positive for the overall enjoyment. “It actually does intensify the experience because we’re sort of mediating our responses with each other’s responses,” she explained, like when someone you’re talking to smiles and you smile, or they cry, and it makes you cry.
And it’s totally valid for members of the fandom to feel genuine emotions for these characters, even though, logically, they know they’re fictional. Letamendi describes this as a parasocial relationship. “I know they’re not real, I know I can’t touch them and experience them, and when I see Scarlett Johansson, I know she’s not Black Widow, however, when I’m experiencing them in the film, the parasocial relationship is experienced as real,” she explained. So, when something happens to the characters, we are capable of feeling real emotions in response.
And with major franchise releases like Endgame, the fun isn’t just found in the theater — it’s also in the build-up. Letamendi points out that anticipation is associated with certain “feel-good chemicals” in the brain, like adrenaline, norepinephrine, and dopamine, and with spoilers, “the anticipatory emotions are dampened and therefore some of the joy is taken out of that,” she said.
These emotions can be really powerful and good — if you like experiencing emotions in real time. Conversely, in another study, Rosenbaum found that some people use spoilers as a shield of sorts. “Sometimes you get really invested in a character and you’re worried that if something bad’s going to happen to that character, the emotional effect will be too overwhelming,” she said.
Basically, every person’s experience with spoilers is so individualized, and it all depends on what aspects of a story you’re trying to enjoy. If you want to maximize your emotional output, avoid spoilers. If you want to focus on the artistry and more technical aspects, spoilers could be useful. And if you aren’t sure what you want, just go with your gut. “Honestly, if you go look for spoilers, they probably won’t hurt your enjoyment,” Rosenbaum reasoned.
But because some types of enjoyment can be impacted by spoilers, it’s always a good practice to be mindful before you put spoilers out into the world. So, seriously, don’t spoil the Endgame… unless someone specifically asks you to.