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Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Mysteries and Self-Esteem

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?


E. B. Davis said...

I like mysteries, but I read other genres too. But within mystery, I read various genres. After I read a dark mystery, I'm in the mood for something cozy. But I can't read too many cozies before I want something that isn't predictable. I like reading paranormal mystery because authors have different takes on the what is paranormal. Some use it to bring out evil. Others, use it to show the goodness of the universe. When I pick up a paranormal, I never have any idea what it will bring. But when one is especially scary or dark, I pick up a cozy for comfort. I can't imagine always reading the same thing so I'm not sure that I buy into the study's premise. People aren't static. One day I have low self-esteem, and on another day I have high self-esteem. Nah. I just like variety.

As to why people like crime fiction--most of the time, I think its appeal allows us to think justice prevails in reality, which, in the real world, doesn't always happen. I think readers love mysteries because they don't hold the pretension of most literary fiction. Yes--that last comment might be provoking to some, but I swear when I try to read literary fiction, the condescension chokes me.

Warren Bull said...

I think there has been only limited research on mysteries but writers and publishers have an idea about what makes mysteries popular. They pay attention to one indicator of popularity — sales.

Grace Topping said...

Many of the mysteries I read during the 60s and 70s were so predictable. The murderer was always the nicest person in the book (helpful neighbor, super kind sister-in-law, etc.) who never had any suspicion cast on them. I got to the point where I would carefully study the book for that type of character, and sure enough that would be the murderer. Since then, writers have wised up and not fallen into that easy method of concealing the murderer. I frequently can guess who did the deed because I am very analytical when I read. If a person puts a book on the table, I wonder why it was mentioned and remember it. But when I am surprised by who the murderer is, I'm pleased that the author was cleaver enough to keep me guessing until the end--to me a sign of a good mystery writer.

Kait said...

That's an eyeopener. I can't say whether mystery readers are deeper thinkers, but I think they may be more analytic, open to making associations, and seeing what lies beneath. As Grace says, I tend to see what happens and wonder why. Why did the hero do that? Why did the hero go here/there, how does it figure in the ultimate end. The stories I heartily dislike are the ones where the perpetrator makes a cameo appearance in chapter two and then voila - that's the murderer and s/he was so good at covering his/her trail that there were virtually NO clues to point to him/her. I read one book, can't remember the name, where the murderer was someone who was caught committing another crime in another town and confessed to the murder that was the subject of the book. No clues, no appearance by the killer, nothing. I had to tip my hat to the author, I'm sure that happens in real life, and I did read to the end. But I never read another book by that author. I didn't think it was fair play.

Jim Jackson said...

A sample size of 84 with three alternative one-page stories to make a generalization about who enjoys what kind of mysteries: I’m sighing at the overreach. And to assume a one-page story can represent "mysteries" is just....awesome, that's the word.

People read mysteries first and foremost because they are good yarns. We picks our poison for lots of reasons, of which self-esteem might be one. Some like cozies, some noir. In thrillers and many suspense the reader knows who done it; other criteria drive reader satisfaction.

Perhaps if I felt better about myself, I would have a stronger opinion of the study. :)

~ Jim

Kara Cerise said...

You make a good point, E.B. I also like variety and it's not dependent on my self-esteem. Sometimes the weather is a deciding factor in what I read. During a thunderstorm, I like to read a fast-paced mystery. But if I'm sitting on the beach in July, I prefer to read a cozy.

Warren, I love your comment. Sales really are bottom line and that's not a mystery.

Grace, you make an interesting observation about how mysteries have changed over the years. I wonder if there has been research done about that? I also thought that keeping the reader guessing until the end was the goal of any mystery. It's surprising that some people like to know whodunit in advance.

Not playing fair with the reader has kept me from continuing to read a series too, Kait. I think readers like to solve the case along with the character in a novel who solves the crime. So we feel cheated when information is kept from us. I have a theory that many mystery readers and writers would actually like to be detectives.

Kara Cerise said...

I'm glad you mentioned those factors, Jim. It's puzzling that the study was designed so that participants only read one of three short stories. I'm curious what inspired the researchers to measure self-esteem and mysteries. That wouldn't have been my first thought for a research project about why crime fiction is appealing to readers.

carla said...

I'm glad someone wanted to research this but agree with you, Jim. Wish it had been more comprehensive. Of course, I think all mystery readers are frickin' brilliant. The most wonderful, smart people on earth!

Gloria Alden said...

Interesting post, Kara. If it's a short story, I love a twist ending. If it's a book, I want more in depth characters and like to try and solve the whodunit. In most cases I have a pretty good idea of who it was before the end, but not always. Like E.B. I read a wide variety of books, although not horror books with psychopaths stalking the victim. Like Kait wrote, I hate when the author only briefly mentions the villain earlier in the book with no real clues to him/her thereafter. I think I read mysteries both for the puzzle and for a justice will be done ending.

Kara Cerise said...

Carla, I agree that people who read mysteries are absolutely brilliant!

Gloria, I've been mulling over your comment that you like short stories to end with a twist. I suppose short stories are more likely to have surprise endings because of their length, whereas the killer in novels can be gradually revealed. Although, I have read a few novels with double twist endings so I could be completely wrong in my assumption. Maybe there should be a study about that.

KM Rockwood said...

I have to admit I never try to figure out the solution to the mysteries I read. Every once in a while, I do anyhow, and that's okay with me, although sometimes I think the solution was too obvious. But there have been times when the very obviousness in itself serves as a red herring.

I do feel cheated, however, when the culprit turns out to be someone foisted on the reader in the very end of the story, or has been presented in such a way that the reader could not possibly have figured it out. For instance, I recently read a story in which the culprit had an iron-clad alibi. In the very end, we were informed that she had an identical twin sister, and was claiming the sister's whereabouts for her alibi.

Mysteries are fun. And they are leisure reading. I don't feel a lot of "shoulds" apply. If it was a good story, whether I figured it out or not, great.

Kara Cerise said...

It sounds like the author of the book you read didn't play fair with the readers, KM.

This is somewhat off topic, but I think it would be fun to write a mystery about characters who are identical twins. The twins I know enjoy telling stories about switching places when they were young to fool their parents, teachers, dates etc. Of course, it would be a challenge to make the plot original and have a satisfying ending.

Jim Jackson said...

Kara -- I have known 2 sets of identical twins and you are right. Both switched places from time to time.

~ Jim

Shari Randall said...

Yup, Carla's right! ;)
Many of the mystery readers I know do read mysteries on two (or maybe more levels) - for the story and for how the author plays the game. If an author doesn't play fair, I cross them off my list. There was one very highly praised book a couple of years ago (I won't name names) that had two murders in it. One was solved, but one wasn't - "because that's how real life is." Well, in a mystery there are rules, people. That stuff is fine in "regular" fiction, but not in the mystery genre. Just my two crabby, and possibly high self-esteemed, cents.

Kara Cerise said...

Jim, there are a lot of plot possibilities when two people can easily switch places. My twin friends still look alike and both have high level positions at their companies. Hmmm

What a disappointing ending that must have been, Shari. I'd probably feel cheated not having things wrapped up in a satisfying way.
I'm going out on a limb here, but I'm not sure that all writers are in agreement about the rules of the mystery genre.