If you skip to the ending, are you a bad person?

August 1, 2007 at 3:00 am Leave a comment

Wolves pictureA recent post described my (failed) attempt to understand Pottermania. My Potter-mad friends squirreled themselves away for the weekend and read the seventh book in the series from cover to cover, savouring every tasty morsel of character, plot and twist along the way. I grabbed the book on the Saturday morning it was released to the adoring fans and immediately skipped to the end of the weighty tome to discover whether Harry lives on. But generally I don’t do this – I’m not a skipper. I am a cover to cover type.

So I came across an article in Slate that asks whether peeking at the ending of a book says something dark about your character. Interesting question: is there some sort of psychological difference between those who peek and those who plod their way through a book, line by line, page by page? Apparently, 25 out of 500 die-hard Potter fans surveyed at a Waterstone’s bookstore in the UK declared they would skip straight to the end.

I’m sure that JK Rowling, along with all other fiction writers, labour for many months or years to produce their work and angst over every word. There have been very few books I’ve become lost in (I’m not really a fiction reader) but Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet is one and I must admit I like Wilbur Smith’s Egyptian series featuring Tata. You get caught up in the suspense, the emotion, the twists and turns, you come to believe almost that the characters are real. So if you skip to the ending, is that a form of cheating – both yourself and the author?

Putting this question to a professor of psychology, the answer appears to be that page-skipping smacks of broader issues of impulse control. In the 1970s, an experiment was conducted on 116 four-year olds. The tots were given a wrapped gift and told they could open it when they had completed a puzzle. The researchers monitored things like how soon the kid opened the gift; how often they talked about the gift during the puzzle task; whether the kid grabbed the gift and so on.

Seven years later, the now-eleven year old subjects were followed up and surprising personality differences were found between those who had delayed gratification and the more impatient ones. Generally, both boys and girls who had waited patiently to open the gift in due course were “deliberative, attentive and able to concentrate” or found to be “intelligent, resourceful and competent”. Kids who had impulsively pounced on the gift with haste showed character traits such as irritability or aggressiveness. They tended to go to pieces under stress and were whiny, sulky types, often victimised by other children.

And so the story goes: those who read Harry Potter all the way through and get caught up with the excitement and suspense may be more resourceful and competent in their careers and life than the whiny skippers who may end up stressed-out and aggressive. I’ve always resisted the nonsense of being labelled, whether it be with a Myers-Briggs type indicator or some other psychological profiling, but on this occasion I’m happy to see I might not be the whinging, sulky type I thought I was!

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Entry filed under: Psychology, Reflections.

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