It’s all the stuff nurses say to you before giving you a shot
[Editor’s Note: One thing that has been made quite evident over the past several weeks is Hollywood has no problem weaponizing the audience’s fear of spoilers to their advantage. The urgency to avoid all spoilers and see Avengers: Endgame opening weekend, when studios make the most money on each ticket sold, pushed it to break box office records. Game of Thrones similarly saw record numbers of people watching each episode of its final season right when it aired lest the latest character death be spoiled on Twitter.
The word “spoil” is just another way to say ruin, and the idea that a film or tv show or game is spoiled for you means that the ultimate experience is ruined. Studies have shown that’s not always the case, and as Jonathan Holmes explains below, hearing a spoiler for something you’re excited about doesn’t have to be a devastating experience if you know how to properly handle it.]
I’ve been writing about video games for a little more than 10 years now, and for most of that time, I actually did something in a totally different field for a full-time job. Among other things, I’ve helped people deal with the difficult thoughts and feelings, usually stemming from unwanted life events like the loss of a loved one, the end of a relationship, and other more damaging stuff.
By those standards, an unwanted event like stumbling upon a spoiler might seem like small potatoes, but there’s no use in trying to compare one person to another. It’s more productive to try to use the strategies that help people with one kind of stress to help even more people. So that’s what I did, and I think it might have worked.
So what do spoilers have in common with more serious emotional issues like anxiety or grief? Well for starters, learning something you don’t want to know and being treated in a way that you don’t want to be treated lead to unwanted feelings. In fact, I’ve been told by plenty of people over the years that what bothers them most about spoilers is the fact that the person doing the spoiling was intentionally trying to make their lives worse, even if it’s ever so slightly.
Case in point, this guy who got punched for spoiling Avengers: Endgame. He probably wouldn’t have been haymakered if he accidentally revealed the movie’s plot to some strangers. It’s the fact that he did it on purpose, to a crowd, that led to him being seen as a threat of some kind. His intentional disrespect was an attack of sorts, which led people to feel justified in fighting back in whatever way felt right to them. I’m certainly not justifying the act of assaulting someone who is trying to ruin a movie for you, but from a psychological perspective, the cause and effect makes sense.
We can’t control what other people do to us or how their actions make us feel, and when we feel attacked, we have the urge to fight back. It feels empowering at the moment, but regardless of what kind of revenge we enact on others who have harmed us, we’re still stuck with the damage they’ve caused. That’s why, when given the choice, I usually advise people to take control of themselves instead of trying to control others. We don’t control what happens to us and how the events in our lives stimulate our brains, but we do have the ability to control what thoughts we access, then act upon, based on these feelings.
Just like how exercising your body can help you to be ready for the sudden need to exert physical strength, there are exercises for your mind that can help you to keep it functioning in the ways that work best for you. For example, if you do something that makes you feel empowered and in control before going to school in the morning, you are less likely to experience a fear reaction later in the day. By setting the stage for successful thoughts at a later date, you do your future self a favor.
Spoilers, as a rule, prime people in the opposite way. Stumbling on any unwanted information is disempowering and discouraging, and that feeling primes us to feel bad about whatever experiences we have next.
Knowing that priming can affect us so strongly either way led me to develop a simple, straight-forward system that works to prevent spoilers from affecting people as strongly. This method was tested on 100 people, and the results were encouraging. I’m calling it the “4D method” for now, but if you have a better name, let me know. Here’s how the experiment worked.
One-hundred people agreed to have the central plot twist of Captain Marvel spoiled for them. To create a realistic sample, eight children ages 8-13, and seven teenagers ages 13-17 were included, with parental consent of course. They all rated a high irritation with story spoilers and investment in the larger story of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. None of them know me personally. All 100 of them received the spoiler, but 50 of them were given the instructions for the “4D method” immediately after. They had to complete every step in the method in less than 20 minutes for their input to be valid, as information that is retained for more than that time is much more likely to make it to your long-term memory.
The results were on a scale from one to four. People who did receive the 4D method rated their irritation with the spoiler at a 1.5 after seeing the movie. Those who didn’t receive the method rated at a 2.7. I imagine that second score might have been higher if they weren’t willing participants in this study, as I suspect that one of the things that grant spoilers their power is the fact that we often feel powerless to stop them from entering our brains.
That would require further studies. This was just a preliminary, and I hope that real social scientists find this interesting enough to pick up where I left off and see what they can find out.
So just what is my 4D method? I’ve detailed the four pillars of the concept below. Read them, remember them, and remind yourself to try them out as we get closer to the release of films like Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker and whatever Jordan Peele is working on next.
The first step is an attempt to lessen the intensity of the initial fight-or-flight response. There is a reason why losing a limb or suffering some other serious injury causes the brain to go into a fear-free auto-pilot mode to help you escape from the immediate danger. If you dwell on how bad something is, you’ll only work to distract yourself from doing something about it and continue to stimulate that amygdala, which makes it really hard to think.
The good news is, it should be easier for most of you to decatastrophize the experience of stumbling upon a spoiler than that of losing an arm. In fact, spoilers may not be as bad for your enjoyment as you may think. There have been plenty of studies on spoilers that show they have a neutral or even positive effect on how much you enjoy something.
I even did my own study a few years ago with 100 college students who rated their enjoyment of Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes after being primed in various ways. The subjects were split into four groups. The first wasn’t talked to at all before playing the game, the second had the controversial ending spoiled but were told it was no big deal, the third was told that Ground Zeroes was “the most incredible, important game in the series, and maybe even all of history” and the fourth group was hyped AND spoiled in a similar way at the same time. Everyone in the group had played Peace Walker to completion and were all invested in the story of Naked Snake and the gang.
In terms of their overall enjoyment of the game, the group that was spoiled actually enjoyed it the most with an average score of 2.9 out of 4. The group that heard nothing was right behind them with a 2.5, then the hype group was way below with a 1.9, lastly the hype and spoiled group was last with a 1.3. Just about all of them went in with their own personal hype at relatively high levels, but it’s still worth noting the spoiled group with low expectations enjoyed the game the most.
That’s why the first step in the spoiler cure is to set all expectations to as low as possible, especially regarding how the spoiler itself will impact you. After being spoiled, quickly say to yourself, “This isn’t a big deal and it’s not going to affect my enjoyment of the story either way.” Then elaborate on those thoughts a few times in your head before you move on to step two. This may seem obvious, but deciding that you believe a spoiler is bad for you will definitely make it worse, and vice versa.
Similar to decatastrophizing, diminishing your belief that a spoiler is legitimate can go a long way towards weakening how much of it you will remember, and therefore, how much it will alter your experience later on. The fact of the matter is nothing we read on the internet is credible with 100% certainty. Everything is subjective and open to interpretation. Even official trailers, like this one for Avengers: Infinity War, may contain intentionally falsified information.
That’s why you can tell yourself with confidence after you learn what you think is a spoiler that “This is probably fake.” Doing so will help your brain automatically sort the spoiler into the “unessential information” part of your memory warehouse, along with all the other thousands of pieces of information that you experience then forget about on a day-to-day basis.
There is a reason why, in the olden days, phone numbers were only seven digits. On average, a person’s short-term memory starts to fill up after storing seven new pieces of info (plus or minus two). That’s part of why I only have four Ds in the 4D method. The fewer the Ds, the more likely people are to remember them.
There’s also plenty of evidence out there that people don’t always remember where the information in their brain comes from. The difference between dreams and memories can be paper thin, as is the difference between memories of things we did ourselves, and things we remember that others have done.
That’s why diluting your brain with new pseudo-spoilers after ingesting a potentially real spoiler can help keep it from taking root in your mind. Let’s say you heard that Dr. Strange’s nemesis Dormammu is going to be played by Steve-O in the next Avengers movie, and you considered that a spoiler. After decatastrophizing and delegitimizing the spoiler, the next step would be to dilute it by quickly listing out seven other actors who might play Dormammu, then spend five minutes on Google researching the various different fan theories and wish lists about the character.
Dormammu could easily be played by Weird Al, Steve Buscemi, John Leguizamo, Ted Danson, Seth Rogan, Danny Trejo, or John Cusack in the next movie. If you are willing to look, I’m sure you can find someone who has posed these possibilities at some point or another. This is a more time-consuming task than the first two, and it takes more work, but things that you do yourself are more likely to be remembered than things you are taught second-hand. So getting active is a great way to push those unwanted memories out.
Studies show that heterosexual men can suffer from short-term memory disruption when watching pornography, with higher arousal states being associated with lower levels of later recall. My guess is that this has to do with the hippocampus shutting down as it produces stress hormones, just as it does in a fight-or-flight response. Waking up the primitive parts of the brain and letting them take charge can put all other brain functions in the back seat. This is especially true when multi-tasking, where the information you’re sorting through as you move forward with some other goal-oriented task may be performed on auto-pilot.
That’s why the road to the flow state, a dream-like form of consciousness where time and sense of self can disappear almost entirely, is often paved by taxing the brain to its maximum capacity. Tetris is one of the most popular games of all time, thanks in no small part to its ability to get people into the flow state. Not coincidentally, it’s also been proven to reduce the amount of damage caused by memories of traumatic events.
The exact way to best distract the brain after experiencing a spoiler is different for everyone. Playing a rhythm game like Rock Band or Rez is one way. Pornography, as previously mentioned, is another. Some may watch clips of movies that always make them laugh or cry, or look at old pictures of their favorite people. The exact form of stimuli is less important than the effect it has on the brain, which is to push the spotlight away from the spoiler.
There is a fifth step that wasn’t tested on the study group, largely because I couldn’t guarantee that everyone in the test group would actually do it. Still, I’ve done it myself for a long time, and I can attest that it’s personally helped me a lot.
I had a relatively big reveal for Avengers: Endgame spoiled for me. After it happened, I went through the 4D steps right away, then before I actually saw the movie, I said to myself multiple times, “I don’t know what’s going to happen in this movie. I might love it or I might hate it, and it’s going to be great to find out either way.” It may seem like a redundant statement when tacked on to the other four steps in the 4D strategy, but it really helps to decide exactly where your goal posts are right before you set about something.
By putting them in a place that minimized expectation and maximized curiosity, I was able to focus more on the moment and less about anticipating what was going to happen, as it’s during that moment of anticipation that spoilers do their damage. As a result, when the moment I had spoiled for me was revealed in the film, I didn’t remember that I even learned of the spoiler for at least five or six seconds afterward. The surprise hit me just as hard as it would have without the spoiler, which in my opinion, is as close to a cure for spoilers as one could hope for.
If you try the 4D method, with the optional D thrown in at the end for good measure, let me know if it worked. At the very worst, it can make getting stuck with a spoiler an interesting mental game of self-analysis and assertion of free will.
Just remember everyone, it’s all about the Ds.