He was innocently promoting the latest installment of the "Star Wars" franchise when it happened. During an interview with Sky News, "Rogue One" actor Mads Mikkelsen let slip his character's exact relationship to rebel Jyn Erso, played by Felicity Jones.
Rumor has it, everyone on the Sky News set gasped. It was a reveal: Much of Erso's backstory had, up until that point, been a pressing mystery, though some hard-core fans had already been speculating along the lines of what Mikkelsen revealed.
Yet this knowledge is unlikely to dampen fans' experience of the movie come December, and not just because it doesn't reveal much since we still don't know whom Mikkelsen plays. Psychology research suggests these types of "spoilers" just don't matter. They might even make the movie more enjoyable.
Spoilers aren't rare. They're not even rare for "Star Wars." The prereleased soundtrack of "The Phantom Menace" (1999) included a song titled "Qui-Gon's Funeral," revealing the ultimate death of a key character. In the lead-up to "The Force Awakens" (2015), fans discovered that Finn was not, in fact, the Jedi — it was Rey, a photo of whose accidentally prereleased action figure had her holding Luke's lightsaber. And then there was that Christmas morning Duracell commercial, too, which featured a boy and a girl, with the girl dressed like Rey and seemingly strong with the Force, which some interpreted as a spoiler.
Oh, and in 1978, two years before the release of "The Empire Strikes Back," actor David Prowse talked about Vader being Luke's dad.
Darth Vader's body actor (the voice is James Earl Jones) was speaking to a crowd at Berkeley when he mused about Luke learning "that Darth is, in fact, his long-lost father."
Most sources say Prowse couldn't have known about that plot point, and it was almost certainly a lucky guess. So perhaps more a prescient theory than a spoiler, but it's likely what sparked the longstanding feud between Prowse and George Lucas, according to Matt Wilstein in The Daily Beast.
"The Empire Strikes Back" didn't suffer any. It was the highest grossing film of 1980, and people went back to see it again in 1997 when it returned as a special edition.
The 1994 thriller "Speed" was well-received despite a trailer showing the bus blow up at the end with no one on it. Season six of "Game of Thrones" is doing fine despite actor Ian McShane's epic tour of shamelessly spoiler-filled interviews.
Or, perhaps, because of them.
In a 2011 psychology study out of University of California San Diego with 819 participants, subjects actually preferred reading stories whose surprises were revealed beforehand over stories whose surprises were intact — but the timing mattered. Subjects only preferred stories that were spoiled before they started reading, as opposed to those whose spoilers were inserted in the text. The findings held true even in the genres of mystery and ironic-twist.
Often referred to as the "spoiler paradox," the authors think this may explain why people like to reread favorite books and watch the same movies over and over. They're not sure what drives the paradox, but they wonder if spoilers might lead to "pleasurable tension caused by the disparity in knowledge between the omniscient reader and the character."
In other words, the spoiler injects an element of dramatic irony, a narrative technique that can heighten a reader's emotional response to the characters.
Psychology writer Adoree Durayappah says it may have to do with the evolutionary purpose of storytelling: the effective conveyance of complex information. In that context, she explains in Psychology Today, a great story is one we fully understand. Already having key knowledge could make intricate storylines easier to process, leading to greater understanding, engagement and enjoyment.
Awareness of Jyn Erso's backstory, then — or at least who isn't in it — may free up viewers to observe and contemplate intricacies in the plot they may otherwise have missed, or at least not fully grasped.
Or maybe we just forget we know the answer. In a 2012 New York Times opinion piece, literary theorist Stanley Fish, reacting to a flood of angry comments following his apparently spoiler-laden column about "The Hunger Games," describes what psychology calls the "paradox of suspense." Research shows people can experience the sensation of suspense despite certainty of the outcome. Some attribute it to willful forgetting. Others think the knowledge may be temporarily lost in the work of processing a story's flood of information.
Another theory says there is no paradox, and research subjects are mistaking apprehension for suspense.
Whatever the processes at work, the human brain does seem determined to preserve the joy of the great narrative. There are surely those who prefer to enter a theater with no knowledge of what's to come, but the science, and decades of box-office stats, appears to absolve Mads Mikkelsen of spoiling anyone's "Rogue One" experience. He may even have improved it.