If You Don’t Want To Know The Result, Don’t Answer The Phone

A year ago, I cut my cable down to just the basic channels. I was pretty sure that I could make do without Comedy Central, Food Network and those programs about couples trying to make a palace out of a shack using scrap wood. But what I discovered I really missed was live sports. A few minutes of highlights on the web or reading about the result online the next day took all the drama away.

Jonah Lehrer describes a study by Nicholas Christenfeld and Jonathan Leavitt that concludes that we humans enjoy the narrative of a story as much or even more when we know the ending, when the result has been spoiled. Billy Crystal’s character in When Harry Met Sally had the quirk of reading the last chapter of a book first much to the consternation of Meg Ryan. Turns out, this is closer to normal than the scriptwriter would have us believe. The brain is a prediction machine and gets a huge reward when its guesses turn out to be right. When you know the ending, guess what, you’re right.

This can’t be true for sport.

During Wimbledon or when a rare Minnesota Vikings  game is televised in my area, I set the DVR and go into media shutdown. I can’t know the result before I watch. I answer the phone, not with “hello”, but “I don’t know the result of the game, so don’t tell me…hello?” I don’t answer the phone much anymore.

If the result slips through my carefully built defenses: hanging out with people who couldn’t care less about sports (like my family) or watch PBS Kids programs, the air rushes out of the balloon of anticipation. There’s no point in watching now, no narrative, no drama, no twists to speculate on. The match stops being a story and just becomes a series of athletic episodes. Nice return, great catch, pulled muscle. Ho hum.

How do you explain the spoiler experiment that concludes we want to know the ending?

And why is the unknown in sport so compelling?

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