first Read to the end you can be positive

Leer primero el final puede ser positivoA man who comes to a movie theater and ask for help to the usher to find a seat. After getting to the seat, the usher makes a gesture with the hand hoping to receive a tip. The man put his hand in his pocket and, after searching for a few moments, he pulls out a coin of little value, and give it to the usher. This, at the exit of the room, checks the bit value of the gratuity. Angry, he returns to the room, heading to the seat of the man, and says to the ear: “the murderer is The butler”.

Probably, we’ve heard some variation of this joke classic, but what they all have in common is a popular belief: explain to someone the ending of a story that is about to contemplate, or read, it is a move in bad taste. And is that supposed to reveal this end can make us enjoy, much less the history of what we would do in case you do not know this. But, is it true that knowing the ending of a story makes you enjoy the least?

This is the question that you have wanted to respond to the researchers Nicholas Christenfeld and Jonathan Leavitt, of the department of psychology at UC San Diego in a recent experiment.

Christenfeld and Leavitt wanted to check how it was affected the subjective feeling of enjoyment from a story when the subjects of the experiment were made to know the ending of the story before they began to read it. In English, the information on the outcome of a story is called a “spoiler”, and the act of making it known “to spoil”. In Spanish, there is a term like it, is accepted by the Dictionary of the Real Academy of the Language: rip. In one of its meanings, we are told in the DRAE that “gut” is:

Interrupt the story that is making someone of any event, chascarrillo, enigma, etc, in anticipation of the outcome or the solution.

The authors gave 30 subjects 12 stories of three types, ironic, mystery and literary, of the canonized authors (John Updike, Roald Dahl, Anton Chekhov, Agatha Christie and Raymond Carver). Each story was presented three ways: as the wrote its author, with a spoiler intro before the story, or with a spoiler embedded within the story.

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The results violate clearly against the common wisdom of which he spoke in the beginning: the subjects preferred the versions destripadas of the stories ironic and mystery. Although the effect was less marked, the subjects also preferred the literary stories destripadas that in its original version.

What can explain these data? Leavitt offers a tentative answer that it seems to me, in part, right: leer, and understand, a history eviscerated is easier to read and understand a story does not eviscerated. Why?

Studies on reading that have been made in the last few decades have revealed the importance of the mental schema of the process of understanding the text. A mental schema is generally defined as a grouping of past experiences that are organized (Téllez, 2005: p. 95) to form a coherent whole, which allows us to use that knowledge in the real world in an automatic way, almost without effort. It is also said that the schemes have no moving parts and variables, which would explain the great power of adaptation of people to new situations.

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As this definition is a little abstract, let’s look at an example. The scheme “read”, typically incorporate a pair of fixed parts (at least one reader, and at least a text) and some variables (such as the particular type of text). So, if you hear the phrase “the child was reading,” we might bring the variable part, in thinking about what tend to read children in a general way (“the boy was reading a book”) (Téllez, 2005: p. 95).

When we read a text, something similar happens ((Téllez, 2005: p. 246). The text activates certain mental schemes can possess the reader, which allows you to make inferences and assumptions about the variables in the schema that are not present in the text (this, incidentally, frees us from the need of specifying all the possible information that we want to convey: for example, if we say “close the door”, we will assume that the listener knows that in the room there is a door, because the typical estancias usually have doors).

In other words: if the reader has the mental schema is correct, the reading will be easier, because we will need fewer cognitive resources to process the information. And this fact contains an interesting paradox. If the possession of a certain mental scheme facilitates the reading and understanding of a text, to a certain extent only we understand when we already know what it is about the text, and we have activated mental schema appropriate (Téllez, 2005: p. 246).

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And this would explain why the subjects in the experiment preferred the texts gutted the original: the spoiler could activate the prior knowledge of the reader, facilitating their reading and understanding of the text.

In my view, there could be an alternative explanation, but related. Perhaps the key was not the facilitation of the understanding of the text, but the creation of hypotheses by the reader and its verification. For example, let’s imagine that the experimenters tell us that Poirot eventually discovers that the murderer is the butler. Such information will activate a schema typical of mystery stories, and we predispondría to make certain assumptions as you go through the text: the reader, being aware of the end, you would see how and why their hypotheses could be confirmed or refuted. Thus, the participation of the reader in the story would increase, increasing in consequence the subjective feeling of enjoyment.

Anyway, will have to wait to later experiments get us out of doubts.


Tellez, Jose A. comprehension of written texts and the cognitive science: beyond the information processing. Madrid: Dykinson, 2005.


Image by Cristiano Corsini


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