Do spoilers actually ruin stories?

4 minutes

The mechanics of bird flight

3 minutes

Shepherd’s delight

8 minutes

We are built to be kind

5 minutes

Footprint: where the towers stood

18 minutes

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Spoiler alert: does knowing how it ends make fiction more fun?

‘It’s not the journey, it’s the destination’ might seem like trite advice, but when it comes to storytelling, the worn adage actually seems to hold up to scrutiny. Just ask Nicholas Christenfeld, professor of psychology at the University of California, San Diego: in a 2013 study, he put our cultural obsession with so-called ‘spoilers’ to the test. After sneakily revealing the end of short stories when describing them to test subjects, he found that their enjoyment of the fictional narratives actually increased – a conclusion that perhaps isn’t so surprising if you think about how many times you’ve watched your favourite movie or read your favourite book. However, Christenfeld still found that there was a forceful knee-jerk aversion to the idea of having a story spoiled, so you might still want to restrain yourself before blurting out the latest Game of Thrones twist to friends and insisting it’s for their own good.

Video by Fig. 1

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Flight manifest: from take-off to landing, a bird’s eye introduction to flying

It seems to be a deeply human experience to catch sight of a bird on the wing and stand there entranced, whether by a hummingbird’s frenetic zipping lines, a hawk’s graceful curves or any of the countless other forms of avian flight. Created by the US animator Stephen Cunnane as a tool to demonstrate realistic bird movements to other animators, this breezy short renders winged flights using silhouettes, detailing the key manoeuvres of avian aerodynamics. If only this how-to manual allowed us to take to the air ourselves… For more from Cunnane, watch his companion animation Animal Gaits.

Video by Stephen Cunnane

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A horse walks into a pub: on the excruciating trauma of being told a joke

You’re at a party, perhaps finding your next drink, when someone you hardly know comes up and asks: ‘Hey, want to hear a good one?’ The real answer is almost always: ‘No, thank you,’ but as a polite guest, what choice do you really have? This excerpt from the film Shepherd’s Delight (1984) drops the viewer directly into this awkward scenario, with a quip about two racehorses talking shop in a bar. As the joke-teller eagerly addresses his audience, a wry running commentary breaks down the psychological minutiae of joke-telling, including the many emotions – from discomfort to sweet relief – experienced by the audience. Infused with a peculiar, subversive sense of humour, the UK filmmaker John Smith’s short is a mad meta-comedy – clever, a bit mean and discomfitingly relatable.

Director: John Smith

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Don’t misread Darwin: for humans, ‘survival of the fittest’ means being sympathetic

One of the shockwaves from Charles Darwin’s idea that humans evolved from other animals was moral panic. If our ethics are not guided by an omnipotent and all-knowing god and, instead, life is driven by ‘survival of the fittest’ via natural selection, how could we possibly expect humans to behave with anything other than brash self-interest? Yet Darwin’s use of the phrase ‘survival of the fittest’ was hardly meant to suggest that existence was a knockdown, drag-out fight – he was very clear that generosity, sympathy and all those other traits that give us warm feelings are central to human survival. In this short video, the psychologist Dacher Keltner at the University of California, Berkeley puts kindness in evolutionary context, connecting his own recent neural-imaging work on compassion with Darwin’s view that sympathy is a cornerstone of human flourishing.

Video by Fig. 1

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At the 9/11 Memorial, grief, confusion and remembrance take countless shapes

‘Imagine the despair. Everything standing still… the world standing still.’

The National September 11 Memorial and Museum in downtown Manhattan opened exactly 10 years after the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2011. Footprint: Where the Towers Stood observes the rhythms of a day near the Memorial’s two square reflecting pools that mark the former location of the Twin Towers. Against a background of flowing water and busy city sounds, visitors – largely tourists, from all corners of the world – experience the place in a multitude of ways. There are tears. There are selfie sticks. Parents attempt to explain the the tragedy to children born long after it. Tour guides repeat their well-worn explanations of the Memorial. The site has become what the US filmmaker Sara Newens describes as ‘a tourist destination and graveyard at once’, and she encourages us to observe deeply, noting its strangeness, its solemnity and its many meanings. 

Director: Sara Newens

Producer: Laura Heberton

Aeon for Friends

Find out more

Spoiler alert: does knowing how it ends make fiction more fun?

‘It’s not the journey, it’s the destination’ might seem like trite advice, but when it comes to storytelling, the worn adage actually seems to hold up to scrutiny. Just ask Nicholas Christenfeld, professor of psychology at the University of California, San Diego: in a 2013 study, he put our cultural obsession with so-called ‘spoilers’ to the test. After sneakily revealing the end of short stories when describing them to test subjects, he found that their enjoyment of the fictional narratives actually increased – a conclusion that perhaps isn’t so surprising if you think about how many times you’ve watched your favourite movie or read your favourite book. However, Christenfeld still found that there was a forceful knee-jerk aversion to the idea of having a story spoiled, so you might still want to restrain yourself before blurting out the latest Game of Thrones twist to friends and insisting it’s for their own good.

Video by Fig. 1

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