Would you rather read a mystery with a surprise ending or one with a predictable outcome?
A 2006 study conducted by Silvia Knobloch-Westerwick of Ohio State University and Caterina Keplinger of Hanover University in Germany found that people with low levels of self-esteem prefer to read detective stories where they can easily deduce who committed the crime. One theory is that guessing the killer can be a confidence boost because the reader can say, “I knew it all along!”
However, people with high self-esteem enjoy reading mysteries that end with an unexpected twist.
Knobloch-Westerwick said, “Personality plays a role in whether a person wants to be confirmed or surprised when they read mysteries.”
How did researchers arrive at that conclusion? First, participants (84 German college students) were given a variety of personality and psychological assessments.
Then, they read a one page short story in German about a businessman who was stabbed while in his villa titled “Murder Because of Lust or Greed?” with two likely suspects—the victim's wife and his mistress.
There were three versions of the story:
1) Both suspects were equally likely to have committed the crime.
2) One suspect was strongly hinted at to be the killer and later revealed to be guilty. (confirmation ending)
3) One suspect was strongly hinted at to be the murderer, but the other suspect was actually guilty. (surprise ending)
After reading one of three versions of the story, participants rated how much they enjoyed the resolution. People whose personality assessments suggested that they had low self-esteem preferred the confirmation ending over the surprise ending. Participants who had high self-esteem scores chose the story with the surprise ending. Both groups liked the story in which it was unclear whodunit until the end.
Some implications of the study:
· The most popular mysteries don't lead readers to expect a certain ending. Co-author Knoblich-Westerwick said, “Mysteries that thwart or confirm expectations in the end only pleased some of the mystery readers.”
· Situational factors may influence enjoyment of reading mysteries. For instance, if a reader has a bad day and her self-esteem is down, she might prefer a predictable resolution to a story.
· People who get easily bored are more likely to enjoy a story with an uncertain outcome.
Why conduct this study? Knobloch-Westerwick said that researchers know little about what makes crime fiction popular or appealing to readers. So, they attempted to find out how the mystery genre interests different kinds of people.
She also pointed out that mysteries are complex with multiple suspects and motives compared to suspense stories that have a good guy vs. a bad guy. Overall, mysteries probably appeal to people who enjoy thinking more than the average person.
Do you believe that little is known about what makes crime fiction appealing to readers?
Do you think that readers who enjoy mysteries are deep thinkers?