The Open Book: What Your Reading Choices Say About You

You Are What You Read

Whether over the holidays or on vacation, there are precious time periods where you actually have time to unwind and relax.  Whether this involves lounging on your living room recliner or lying on a tropical beach, down time often includes an opportunity to catch up on reading.  So, what do you read?  Research reveals that your story choice tells a story about you.   

This makes sense, when you consider the difference between reading for pleasure and reading under pressure.  Reading to complete an assignment or to prepare for a presentation reveals diligence, not disposition.  And reading to prepare for the next book club meeting often requires a race-against-time reading marathon, rushing through the assigned book to develop talking points and “take aways” to report to the group. 

It is the material you select to read for leisure and enjoyment that reveals the most about you.  Some interesting research has focused on the popularity of murder mysteries, how different personality traits predict enjoyment of different types of plots, and even differences in what types of people are disappointed by a spoiled ending. 

Mystery, Entertainment, and Spoilers

You do not have to have grown up with Nancy Drew or Sherlock Holmes to appreciate the appeal of a good mystery.  Mysteries draw you into the story, make you think, and often surprise you at the end—which can be good or bad, depending on your personality. 

Although murder mysteries involve more cognitive thought than other types of entertainment, research reveals a preference for a plot of medium complexity, and a sense of self-validation when we “figure it out” or confirm our suspicions at the end.  The appeal of murder mysteries to all ages and audience types explains the widespread, enduring popularity of this particular brand of fiction.

The Desire for Diversion

Research by Silvia Knobloch-Westerwick and Caterina Keplinger (2008)[i] shed light on the reason crime fiction is so popular across different audiences.  Noting that murder mysteries constitute entertainment with an emphasis in cognitive processing, they found a preference for medium-complexity plots, even among those with high need for cognition. Subjects preferred relatively simply story lines as opposed to complicated conundrums.

The researchers note that although the appeal of crime fiction does not depend on its riddles and brainteasers, the process of confirming suspicions can increase enjoyment, providing self-bolstering which may impact mood management.  These findings explain the widespread popularity of crime fiction among diverse audiences as “light” entertainment that is enjoyed without much cognitive effort. 

Yet not everyone is pleased with a predictable ending.

The Link Between Mystery Solving and Self Esteem

Have you ever read a story and been disappointed that you were so easily able to figure out the ending?  This might be an indication of high self-esteem

A study by Knobloch-Westerwick and Keplinger (2006)[ii] found that when reading a mystery, curiosity and uncertainty about the culprit resulted in higher levels of enjoyment.  They also found a link between story resolution and self esteem.   Participants with a high level of self-esteem disliked a resolution that confirmed their suspicions, while low self-esteem participants disliked a surprise resolution.

Do You Prefer Thinking or Feeling?

Have you ever had to stop a friend gushing about a new movie she saw or book she finished by interjecting “Don´t tell me how it ends!” If so, you are likely aroused by emotion over cognition.

Research by Judith Rosenbaum and Benjamin Johnson (2016)[iii] examined the impact of spoilers on story enjoyment.  They adopted a definition of a spoiler as any information that prematurely revealed essential information about the plot, and should thus be avoided. 

They linked preference for spoiled v. unspoiled stories to need for cognition (engaging in and enjoying thinking) and need for affect (either seeking out or avoiding emotional stimuli or situations).  Participants low in need for cognition preferred spoiled stories, while those with a high need for affect preferred stories that remained unspoiled.  People who frequently read fiction for pleasure, similar to those high in need for affect, experienced a higher degree of enjoyment reading short stories that remained unspoiled.

A Happy Ending

The moral to the story? When it comes to reading preferences, we are open books.   Literary choice can provide a method of reading others, as well as an exercise in self-reflection during a season where you actually have the opportunity to take a break and enjoy a good book.  Just make sure no one spoils the ending.


[i] Silvia Knobloch-Westerwick and Caterina Keplinger, “Murder for Pleasure: Impacts of Plot Complexity and Need for Cognition on Mystery Enjoyment,” Journal of Media Psychology 20, no. 3 (2008): 117-128.

[ii] Silvia Knobloch-Westerwick and Caterina Keplinger, “Mystery Appeal: Effects of Uncertainty and Resolution on the Enjoyment of Mystery,” Media Psychology 8 (2006): 193-212.

[iii] Judith E. Rosenbaum and Benjamin K. Johnson, ”Who´s Afraid of Spoilers? Need for Cognition, Need for Affect, and Narrative Selection and Enjoyment,” Psychology of Popular Media Culture 5, no. 3 (2016): 273-289.


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