Spoiler or no spoiler? It’s a tangled etiquette

I couldn’t go into the office last Tuesday. The finale of what I consider to be the greatest TV show of the last decade, Succession, had aired the previous day, and I hadn’t yet watched it. The risk of hearing spoilers from my colleagues was unacceptably high.

So I embarked on a comprehensive spoiler-shielding programme: I stayed at home, muted a particularly telly-focused WhatsApp group, and avoided social media. Or I tried to, anyway. In the end it was my addiction to the latter that proved my downfall: in a moment of distraction, my thumb found its way to the Twitter app, and there it was, right in front of me: a tweet containing a giant spoiler. 

Some might argue that I should have just watched the 90-minute episode when it aired — which was 2am in London — or at least as soon after that as possible (I would counter that I had other more important things to do). They might also lament my inability to avoid social media, where TV series are often discussed (I have since installed a Twitter-blocking app, which is remarkably effective). 

But what is the correct etiquette when it comes to sharing spoilers? Surely we don’t have to watch every show we love as soon as it comes out. And what of the “spoilees”: those who actively share plot details because they feel part of a cultural moment and want to signal that they are au courant?

I ran a (somewhat unscientific) Twitter poll this week to get other people’s thoughts. The results were quite clear: of 478 votes, the biggest group — just over 33 per cent — felt spoilers shouldn’t be shared until at least a week after a show has aired, if ever. Almost as many said a few days to a week was the right amount of time. Only 22 per cent thought it was acceptable to share spoilers immediately, as the LA Times did earlier in the series, publishing a faux-obituary for a certain key character minutes after Succession had aired.

It’s not just TV shows that can be spoiled. Unless an author has themselves written a spoiler into a story (like Shakespeare’s “star-cross’d lovers”, whose fate we are told in the prologue of Romeo and Juliet), I don’t want any clues as to what might happen in plays or novels, either. And there is sometimes fun to be had by not revealing an ending, as audiences of Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap, the longest-running play in history, have largely managed since 1952.

But is our spoilerphobia warranted? Perhaps not. A study published in 2011 by two psychologists at the University of California, San Diego, found that spoilers not only do not ruin the enjoyment of stories; they actually increase it. Participants were given three short stories each to read, from three different genres — mystery, literary and “ironic-twist”. One of these stories had a “spoiler” paragraph at the start, in which the plot was discussed and the ending revealed in a way that seemed inadvertent. In all three categories, readers enjoyed these “spoiled” versions more.

“What people liked was a better understanding of the story,” Jon Leavitt, one of the study’s authors, tells me. And knowing the ending does not necessarily ruin the suspense: “People underestimate the extent to which you inhabit a story while you’re engaged with it . . . The situation is still unfolding in front of you.”

I can relate to this. In films I’ve seen multiple times I still root for the guy to get the girl; I still hope the catastrophe I know is coming can be averted. There are also times when having a better understanding can improve the experience — I always read the synopsis before going to see an opera.

But there is a difference between choosing to find out what happens and suddenly learning something you were not meant to. The former is not really a “spoiler” at all, but the latter is, and there is a sense of disappointment in an accidental discovery — both in fiction and in life.

Other research has provided a more nuanced picture. A 2016 study found that those of us who have what psychologists call a “need for cognition” — that is, who are inclined to undergo effortful cognitive activity — are more likely to want to be kept in suspense. So are those of us who have a “need for affect”, meaning a desire to experience many different emotional states. I think I have a need for both.

Spoilers do, to some extent, “spoil” our enjoyment of the escapist entertainment a show like Succession provides. I propose, for future “appointment TV”, a 24-hour embargo for the discussion of crucial plot developments to allow all time zones to catch up. After that it is open season.

We shouldn’t kill the thrill of suspense, but neither should we deprive people of the rare opportunity to come together for a happy and frivolous reason, all at once, in the overwhelming, endless, and often misery-inducing expanse that is the internet.

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