Spoiler Alert

Why do we always fall for surprise endings? It turns out that our capacity to be easily fooled in books and movies is made possible by a handful of predictable mental shortcuts. We talk this week with Vera Tobin, one of the world’s first cognitive scientists to study plot twists. She says storytellers have been exploiting narrative twists and turns for millennia — and that studying these sleights of hand can give us a better understanding of the contours of the mind.

The transcript below may be for an earlier version of this episode. Our transcripts are provided by various partners and may contain errors or deviate slightly from the audio.



This is HIDDEN BRAIN. I'm Shankar Vedantam. We all love a good surprise. In movies, we love the moment when the rug is pulled out from under us, when everything we thought we knew turns out to be totally wrong. We love these moments so much, we even get a kick out of watching other people being surprised.


UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: What? What? What?

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: Oh, my God. Oh, my God.

VEDANTAM: In fact, there's an entire mini-genre on YouTube of parents filming their children...



VEDANTAM: ...As they watch one of the greatest surprise scenes in movie history. Spoiler alert - this is the showdown between arch rivals Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker in "Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back."


JAMES EARL JONES: (As Darth Vader) Obi-Wan never told you what happened to your father.

VEDANTAM: Video after video shows cute little kids peeking out from under blankets, their eyes wide, as they discover the secret that the rest of the world already knows.


JONES: (As Darth Vader) I am your father.


UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #3: What? Darth Vader is his father? Daddy, is that true?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: It's totally true.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: It's - it's his father.


VEDANTAM: This week, we'll find out why our tendency to be easily fooled in movies can reveal something important about the way our minds work outside the movie theater.

VERA TOBIN: Stories do - what happens to us is we make our way through the world. All the time, we're making inferences, we're trying to make sense of the world and understand what other people think, what other people know, what's going on. And what stories do is they play on these tendencies, and they exploit them to produce really pyrotechnic effects.


VEDANTAM: We'll talk to Vera Tobin, a cognitive scientist at Case Western Reserve University. She's the author of "Elements Of Surprise: Our Mental Limits And The Satisfactions Of Plot." We're going to look at two movies from the 1990s, "The Sixth Sense" and "The Usual Suspects." If you haven't seen those movies yet - fair warning - more spoilers are coming your way.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: What do you think?

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #4: What do I think, what?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Do you think that's crazy?



VEDANTAM: Storytellers are not neuroscientists, but they intuitively know what neuroscientists know. All of us have blind spots in the way we assess the world. We overlook key details. We forget how we know things. We see patterns that aren't there. Because these blind spots are wired into the brain, they act in ways that are predictable - so predictable that storytellers from Sophocles to M. Night Shyamalan have used them against us to lead us astray.

In recent years, some scientists have begun to ask, can stories serve as a kind of brain scan? If a surprise ending works by exploiting our biases and mental shortcuts, can observing the mechanics of a good story reveal something important about the contours of the mind?

TOBIN: As we make our way through the world, our brains are assembling very fragmented, jagged bits of information into a coherent story for us. And what stories, films and novels and so on are doing is capitalizing on these features. And because they're doing that, it provides a wonderful sort of laboratory in the wild, you might say, for identifying where people are making those inferences, what kinds of predictable sorts of projections they make to fill in those gaps because the stories are exposing them.

VEDANTAM: If the idea of using movies as a brain scan seems far-fetched, think about what scientists have learned in recent years by studying magic tricks.


VLADIMIR JENKO: So you're going to be holding the coin like this - boom.

VEDANTAM: This is a popular YouTube magician known as The Russian Genius.


JENKO: For this, I will be showing you a coin vanish, which looks something like this.

VEDANTAM: In this clip, which we've altered a bit for clarity, he puts a coin in his left hand, gives it a dramatic squeeze...


JENKO: Boom.

VEDANTAM: ...And opens his hand.


JENKO: And then it just disappears, just like that.

VEDANTAM: In fact, the coin is whisked away by the magician's other hand when we're not looking. But at this point, our minds have already filled in the gaps about cause and effect. That little squeeze of the hand...


JENKO: Boom.

VEDANTAM: It seems like it made the coin actually disappear. In this way, a good magician exploits gaps in our attention and our tendency to draw rapid but flawed inferences.

TOBIN: And in fact, there's a whole thriving sub-area of cognitive science that has realized that magic tricks are this really fertile ground for discovering things about limitations in our visual perception and aspects of our attention that magicians have capitalized on for decades and centuries, even. And the kinds of tricks that brilliant filmmakers and novelists and short story writers and playwrights use are, themselves, also magic tricks that also take advantage of these features in the way that people work. So when we dissect them, we can discover very, very reliable aspects of those tricks turn out to be very important clues about the way that people think.

VEDANTAM: Now, there are many kinds of surprises in narratives. And at the most basic level, you can have someone jump out from behind a wall and scream at you, and that's one kind of surprise, and it's scary. But in some ways, you are focused on a different kind of surprise, a more sophisticated kind of surprise. What kind of surprise is that?

TOBIN: Yes. So I'm especially looking, in this study, at surprises where what you thought was happening, what you thought was going on, what you thought the circumstances were in a story, turn out to be something different, and that you're convinced, by the story, that it was something different all along. So that it's this retrospective surprise where the rug is pulled out from under you, the tables are turned, you - instead of thinking that the story has told you one thing and now it's telling you something different - what is going on here? - you believe that you were mistaken and that now you have a new understanding of what was going on before.

VEDANTAM: So we're going to take a look at two movies, both of which, in some ways, are these finely executed plots with these, as you call it, these finely oiled traps that are embedded inside them. And the first one is M. Night Shyamalan's "The Sixth Sense." A dedicated psychologist, Malcolm Crowe, is working with a troubled child named Cole. And after much effort, the psychologist finally gets Cole to open up about what's bothering him. Let's listen to a clip.


HALEY JOEL OSMENT: (As Cole Sear) I want to tell you my secret now.

BRUCE WILLIS: (As Malcolm Crowe) OK.

OSMENT: (As Cole Sear) I see dead people.

WILLIS: (As Malcolm Crowe) In your dreams? While you're awake? Dead people, like in graves, in coffins?

OSMENT: (As Cole Sear) Walking around like regular people. They don't see each other. They only see what they want to see. They don't know they're dead.

VEDANTAM: Vera, tell us about the surprise that follows.

TOBIN: Yes. Well, so as I expect, most people at this point know what happens is that the psychologist who's helping this boy who can see dead people come to grips with his gift and so on is, himself, one of these dead people who can't see the other dead people, who doesn't know he's dead. That's his reality.

VEDANTAM: And, of course, this movie has long been held up as a paragon of the surprise ending for precisely the reasons you just laid out, which is, as you watch the movie, you are taken in, and at the point at which the surprise is revealed to you, you look back, and you see the numerous clues that were scattered throughout the movie, including in this last clip, by the way, where Cole, the child, says, you know, they're everywhere. I see them all the time. And, of course, Cole is actually talking and seeing someone who actually is dead.

TOBIN: That's exactly right. And part of what happens is, you know, in all kinds of stories, having characters with different kinds of information about what's going on gives the story a justification for leading the viewer to pay attention to certain things and not pay attention to other things. And we're inclined to forget or lose track of possible discrepancies between character's perspectives. So in "The Sixth Sense," we lose track of the fact that Cole knows things that other characters may not know, and he sees things that other characters may not see, and that we're seeing what he sees.

VEDANTAM: I want to spend some time exploring different elements of this plot and how they might reveal things about our minds. We actually had Danny Kahneman on HIDDEN BRAIN recently, and he talked to me about the availability bias. Things that spring more readily to mind are seen as more plausible than things that spring less readily to mind. Now, most of us find it easier to bring to mind a psychologist who's dealing with a patient who's suffering from hallucinations rather than a scenario where a kid can talk to dead people. So one scenario seems more likely - the availability bias fools us into ignoring the less likely scenario.

TOBIN: That's right. And, of course, also, the fact that these scenarios that are more available to us are also made more available to us by the film itself because we have a character there, the psychologist, who is absolutely operating on the assumption that he's not a dead person, he is a living psychologist, he's helping this child with things.


WILLIS: (As Malcolm Crowe) His pathology is more severe than initially assessed. He's suffering from visuals hallucinations, paranoia, school-aged schizophrenia.

TOBIN: And this hypothesis about what's going on is very available to us because it's presented to us directly on screen, as well.


VEDANTAM: There's another moment in the movie that takes advantage of a powerful limitation in our thinking. Malcolm Crowe, the dead psychologist played by Bruce Willis, is sitting across the room from the troubled child's mother. They're in the living room, and we assume they've just had a difficult, private conversation. The mother is looking down. She never looks at the psychologist. She doesn't even acknowledge he's there, which turns out to be a very significant detail, but we don't know that just yet. Then, her son enters the room. She gets up to see him.


TONI COLLETTE: (As Lynn Sear) Hey, baby. How was your day?

VEDANTAM: Now, all that went by really fast. But let's return to this detail that the mother never looked at Malcolm Crowe. We think she didn't look at him because she was distraught about a conversation they had had. But really, the mother can't see him because he's a ghost. As a dead guy, the psychologist doesn't notice anything strange either. According to the internal logic of his character, he just sits there, seeing whatever he wants to see.


HAYLEY JOEL OSMENT: (As Cole Sear) They only see what they want to see. They don't know they're dead.

VEDANTAM: Here's the thing - we don't notice anything strange, ourselves. We leap to a conclusion about what's going on, and we assume that the characters in the movie are seeing and hearing and thinking what we see and hear and think. As far as Vera is concerned, this blind spot, imagining that other people think like we think, this is the mother of all blind spots. Cognitive scientists call it the curse of knowledge.


TOBIN: So the things that we know, we find it very difficult, you know, essentially impossible, to fully suppress that knowledge when we're thinking about what other people might know. It sort of seeps in and colors and influences our speculation about the perspective of other people. So when we first encounter this scene, we have an understanding of what it probably means, and we readily project that understanding onto our speculation about what both of the characters in the scene think and know and understand, and this affects how we interpret their actions.

VEDANTAM: You know, one of the other things I found really lovely about the movie, in the context of reading your book, is that it plays on how we draw implicit conclusions about the world. So in the opening scenes of the movie...


DONNIE WAHLBERG: (As Vincent Gray) Don't you even remember your own patients?

VEDANTAM: ...We see the psychologist get shot by a former patient.


WAHLBERG: (As Vincent Gray) You failed me.

WILLIS: (As Malcolm Crowe) Just give me a chance...


OLIVIA WILLIAMS: (As Anna Crowe, screaming).

VEDANTAM: When we see him walking around some time later...


WILLIS: (As Malcolm Crowe) My name is Dr. Malcolm Crowe. We were supposed to meet today, but I missed our appointment.

VEDANTAM: We assume he's recovered, when, in fact, he's a ghost. Now, no one tells us he survived. We don't even think about it consciously. The information is powerful because it's actually implicit. We simply don't notice how our minds are constantly and consistently leaping to conclusions outside of our conscious awareness.

TOBIN: That's right. And that's, of course, how we navigate the world all the time. It's how we make sense of stories that we tell one another. We leave lots of material implicit, for other people to fill in. We don't feel like we have to be - labor over every point of connection and make these things abundantly clear.

But it's also true, as we make our way through the world, all the time, we have only partial information about what we're encountering, what kind of situation we're in, what other people think or know or intend. And part of the essence of being a person and moving fluently through the world is conjuring up all of these inferences to bridge the gaps between what we know for certain.

VEDANTAM: There's one final idea I want to explore in connection with "The Sixth Sense." You know, we all think that we understand information, or we understand the world by carefully amassing and processing all the evidence. But in reality, we start with some piece of information, and then we build on it. But this initial information acts, in some ways, like an anchor. It influences everything else we learn afterwards. Tell me about the anchoring effect and the role it plays in "The Sixth Sense."

TOBIN: Well, yes, so actually, you refer to this initial scene - right? - where he's shot, but it's immediately followed by a cut to him walking around afterwards. So you have this moment of inference that you make, indeed, as you say, without probably even noticing that it was an inference at all. It seems as if the film has showed you something. And it does this initially, and then it does it repeatedly over the course of the early scenes of the film, where you're given the psychologist's understanding of what's going on, over and over again.

And with anchoring, even if you're skeptical about this framing, the fact that you got it right away will tend to constrain the directions in which your imagination goes. But your inclination is to have that initial framing of the circumstances that he sets forth as your anchor, and then to adjust away from it, and you know, try and say, well, maybe it's not quite like that but not to throw it away altogether.

VEDANTAM: And so that's what makes the anchor so powerful, which is we think that we are open to re-evaluating it, throwing it aside, tossing it aside. But, in fact, even when we're willing to do that, the anchor still exerts some kind of influence over us and prevents us from drifting too far away.

TOBIN: That's right. And this is, of course, the essence of red herrings, in general, is even if a red herring - even if you see that it's a red herring, even if you are completely not taken in by the line of speculation that that red herring suggests, it still will exert a sort of gravitational pull on the kinds of speculation that will come readily to mind, that will be available to you.


VEDANTAM: When we come back, we'll look at another movie from the 1990s that's also famous for its jaw-dropping plot twist - "The Usual Suspects."


KEVIN SPACEY: (As Verbal) Keaton always said, I don't believe in God, but I'm afraid of him. Well, I believe in God. And the only thing that scares me is Keyser Soze.


VEDANTAM: This is HIDDEN BRAIN. I'm Shankar Vedantam. Today I'm talking to Vera Tobin, one of the world's first cognitive scientists to study how plot twists can offer a window into the workings of the human mind. As part of her research, she spent a lot of time watching movies looking for a particular kind of surprise.

TOBIN: Surprises where they come climactic at the end of film, and they overturn everything that was before - so you know, a big plot twist.

VEDANTAM: She calls these kinds of twists rug-pullers. In this segment, we're going to examine one of the greatest rug-pullers in modern cinema - "The Usual Suspects" from 1995.


GIANCARLO ESPOSITO: (As Jack Baer) Tell me you got the cripple from New York in there. He mentioned Keyser Soze?

CHAZZ PALMINTERI: (As Dave Kujan) Who?

VEDANTAM: In the movie, the police are looking for a mysterious criminal named Keyser Soze. Nearly everything we know about Soze is filtered through the movie's narrator, a limping small-time crook named Verbal. He's played by Kevin Spacey. In this scene, Verbal tells an investigator about the legend of Keyser Soze.


SPACEY: (As Verbal) He's supposed to be Turkish. Some say his father was German. Nobody ever believed he was real. Nobody ever knew him or saw anybody that ever worked directly for him. But to hear Kobayashi tell it, anybody could work for Soze. You never knew. That was his power.

TOBIN: So the plot twist is Verbal is Keyser Soze. And the other part of the plot twist is that the whole unfolding story that we've seen, as Verbal tells his account of what happened, that appeared to be sort of straightforward flashback to the mysterious events of the past...


SPACEY: (As Verbal) McManus came to us with the job. Fenster got the vans. Hockney supplied the hardware. I came through with how to do it, so no one got killed. But Keaton...

TOBIN: It turns out to all have been just a story that he was spinning in order to buy himself time in order to escape.


SPACEY: (As Verbal) We all knew it couldn't be done. The way I figured, to do it wrong meant killing. To do it right took five men. Five men meant Keaton.

VEDANTAM: I wonder if we are misdirected here partly because we adopt the beliefs and worldview of the people who narrate the stories to us. And the person who tells a story shapes the way we see the story.

TOBIN: That's exactly right. So what happens is the more immersive a narrative is, the more and more we tend to take what some people have called an inactive viewpoint, which is to say that we sort of have this immersive experience. And our viewpoint begins to align more and more with the viewpoint that's being depicted to us and presented to us by the narrative.

VEDANTAM: And of course, you can see this in all kinds of movies, which is, you know, you tell the movie from the point of view of the victim, and it becomes a tragedy. You tell the same story about a bank heist from the point of view of the robbers, and it becomes, you know, potentially a funny story or even a victorious story about a heist pulled off successfully. The point of view of the story - the narrator of the story plays really a central role in shaping how we think about what's real and what's not real.


SPACEY: (As Verbal) At that point, I wasn't scared. I knew I hadn't done anything they could do me for - besides it was fun. I got to make like I was notorious.

TOBIN: The framing of events and their significance and what parts are worth paying attention to and what they mean - all of these things are part of the way that the story is being told to us and the viewpoint of the person telling the story.

VEDANTAM: And again, this is all mostly unconscious. We're not actually thinking, this is the point of view; this is the frame I'm adopting. As you say, when a good story starts to unfold, we just get swept along. And then in some ways, our critical faculties are are put on hold.

TOBIN: That's right. So the more emotionally engaged, the more gripping and vivid the story is, the less attention we're paying to sort of the apparatus of this story and questioning and wondering and being on guard and monitoring these questions about, should I trust this source? What are the discrepancies here and so on? You're just immersed in that perspective.

VEDANTAM: And of course, then that means that if you're an artist creating a movie or writing a book, what you want to do is take advantage of the fact that in highly emotional settings people are more likely to be gullible than in other situations.

TOBIN: That's right. And, you know, so I think in a lot of circumstances people tend to think of plot twists as being in some way opposed to - you know, they're gimmicky. They're operating on a level that is counter to these other sort of literary and filmic values of immersive storytelling, vivid characterization and depth and complexity and so on. But actually often they capitalize on exactly those things.

VEDANTAM: You know, as I was reading your book, Vera, I got to thinking about how "The Usual Suspects" also takes advantage of the fact that we have sympathy for Verbal because he has a disability. And it's difficult in our minds to see that someone who demands our sympathy might also be a psychopath - that in some ways, it requires a certain complexity of sort of holding these two opposing ideas simultaneously that is so hard to do that we just sort of jettison one of them.

TOBIN: Well, yeah, so right. Stereotypes can be taken advantage of in these ways. And in fact, that's part of the framing within this story, right? So, you know, Verbal has cerebral palsy and - or he seems to, right? And part of the final scene is he walks out into the city, and his limp melts away and so on.


TOBIN: So the idea is that the character was taking advantage of the fact that people often tend to see people with physical disabilities or other kinds of stereotyped vulnerabilities as somehow not eligible for other kinds of roles and that he's capitalizing on that as well.


SPACEY: (As Verbal) The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn't exist. And like that, he's gone.

VEDANTAM: You know, psychologists sometimes talk about the hindsight bias, which is once an event has unfolded, you feel like you knew all along that it was going to happen. At some point, once you see the reveal in "The Sixth Sense" or "The Usual Suspects," you go back, and there's a part of you that kicks yourself for not seeing it. But there's a part of you that also says, yes, of course, I actually did see all those things. I actually - this actually makes sense to me.

TOBIN: Yes, you can talk yourself into this position where you say, oh, yes, you know, I - it was - I halfway believed that. You know, I was on the track more than you really were potentially, right? So all of this helps to sell you on this idea that the story really played fair with you, that the clues were there, that it was guessable after the fact.

VEDANTAM: There's a clip on YouTube of a teenage boy on the couch watching the end of "The Sixth Sense" for the first time. The person filming him cannot contain his excitement.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Don't check your phone. Just watch the...

VEDANTAM: As a kid on the couch learns the movie's big secret, he goes through a few stages - confusion...


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Wait a second.

VEDANTAM: ...Understanding.



VEDANTAM: Then he turns to the camera with a look of total glee. And the guy with a camera, he's euphoric.



VEDANTAM: It's as if he is seeing the surprise for the first time. So what's going on here? Why do the surprises and stories leave us so delighted? Vera says there are a few reasons.

TOBIN: One is after all it really is a story not real life - so this kind of safe exploration of the thrill of surprise without the possible outcomes that would make surprises so unpleasant potentially in real life. So you know, it's part of why it's really fun to go on a roller coaster, and it's not so much fun to fall off a cliff, (laughter) right? And the other reason is that when they're constructed well in real life you don't have necessarily a lead up to these sudden surprises where you can reflect back on what happened before and discover that the surprise is enlightening - right? - that it lends new interesting significance to the events that happened before but with a well-made surprise. This has been set up for you.

VEDANTAM: It's a little bit like the pleasure we get from solving a crossword puzzle or a difficult problem. At some point, things that seem confusing all fall into place. And there's an intense pleasure at seeing how all the parts come together beautifully.

TOBIN: Exactly. So what a story can do for you is construct this insight experience, where you feel not that something has blindsided you or that you were just taken by surprise but this experience that feels as if you have a real aha moment about how things fit together. And that is something that humans like a lot.


VEDANTAM: Vera Tobin is a cognitive scientist at Case Western Reserve University. She's the author of the book "Elements Of Surprise: Our Mental Limits And The Satisfactions Of Plot." Vera, thank you for joining me today on HIDDEN BRAIN.

TOBIN: Thank you so much for having me.


VEDANTAM: This week's show was produced by Laura Kwerel and edited by Tara Boyle. Our team includes Jenny Schmidt, Rhaina Cohen, Parth Shah, Thomas Lu and Camila Vargas Restrepo. Our unsung hero this week is the public radio ecosystem. As many of you know, NPR's success depends on the viability of public radio stations around the country.

Last week in my call out to you, I mentioned the work of psychologist Scott Plous at Wesleyan University who talked about the role of reciprocity in daily life. Today, I want to draw your attention to the difference between things that are urgent and things that are important. As we go about our daily lives, we often prioritize the things that are urgent - getting to a meeting on time - and forgetting about the things that are important - to eat right, to exercise, to get enough sleep.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: So what do you think? Did you like the fact that Darth Vader was actually Luke's dad?



VEDANTAM: I'm Shankar Vedantam. And this is NPR.

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