Nine psychological reasons why we love lists

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The internet is awash with information that’s been sliced and diced into bite-sized chunks. But why do we find it so appealing? Claudia Hammond explores the canny mind tricks behind the buzz.

 1. We know exactly what we’re getting

Whether it’s the 10 ways your body is disgusting or the 100 greatest guitarists of all time, the layout is familiar to us. The list is numbered in order and you scroll down to see what’s next. This predictability allows us to develop what psychologists call “schemata” – the mental maps we build up from experience which give us an idea of what to expect. These mental shortcuts allow us to understand and take in information more easily.

2. We don’t like missing out

(Credit: Getty Images)

(Credit: Getty Images)

The temptation to click on the list is hard to resist. It already exists and now that you know it does, it feels as if you already own that knowledge. If you miss out by failing to click on it, you are losing something that you had in your grasp.  And as Daniel Kahneman and other psychologists have shown with years of research on loss aversion, we hate losing something we already have. So sometimes it’s just easier to click on the article than to overcome that slight sense of loss if you decide not to look. 

3. They feel less taxing on the brain

Online reading requires us to multi-task. While we read we are also making decisions about whether to click on links, when to move the mouse and where to situate the page on our screens, not to mention handling pop-ups reminding us that emails and messages are coming in. Researchers at Albany State University of New York found this can sometimes lead to a vague sense of disorientation while we’re online. But perhaps lists can make it all feel more manageable again.

4. We like to think we’re too busy to read anything else

(Credit: Thinkstock)

(Credit: Thinkstock)

It’s easy to believe that we are much busier these days than people used to be. If you look at surveys of time use over the decades this isn’t quite true. Back in 1887 Nietzsche was complaining about the same thing, ‘One thinks with a watch in one's hand even as one eats one's midday meal while reading the latest news of the stock market’. But if you take the US as an example, a compilation of five different measures of time taken over the past 50 years, indicate that the average American man has six to nine hours more free time every week than he had five decades ago. Even so, the information explosion means that we have a huge number of news sources vying for our attention, giving us the feeling that we can never keep up – and “listicles” seem less of a burden than more forbidding, narrative articles or essays.

5. They are easy to scan for information…

Presenting articles in list form works well for snappy, isolated facts – such as the 10 most important advances made because of beer. They are also useful for practical advice – such as instructions to mend a boiler since you can scan the screen as fast as possible to find the bit relevant to you.

Even so, they do have their limits. If each point is connected to the next, studies suggest it can cause you to lose the thread of the narrative, reducing comprehension. Research has also found that it’s  possible to have too many headings – and lists, of course, have a great deal of them. When researchers at the University of Washington gave students articles to read about arthritis and varied the number of headlines included, they found that although a certain number of headlines made it easier to understand, if there were too many, comprehension began to fall again. For online articles, one heading every 200 words seemed to be optimal.

6. …and we always know how much is left.

(Credit: Thinkstock)

(Credit: Thinkstock)

Editors tend to assume that when you read online you need more headings to stop you losing your place and to break up the text because scrolling up and down multiple un-numbered pages can be more confusing than turning the pages of a book. Some online lists take this to the extreme and consist of nothing but numbered headings, but however much detail there is, the numbers mean you know exactly where you are. That’s a stark contrast to a conventional article: even when you know roughly how long it is overall, you can’t tell how many pieces of new information will emerge amongst the padding. With a numbered list you can always place exactly where you are in the piece.

7. It’s fun to try to guess what’s on the list…

The moment you know that an article is framed as a list, it’s hard to resist trying to predict the contents. It becomes a game. How many of the top 10 sweets from the 80s and 90s can you name? Even better, it’s not a straightforward quiz with right and wrong answers. It’s a game that combines knowledge with chance, because the list is often based on a single stranger’s subjective judgements. This is the best kind of game. Neuroscientific studies demonstrate that the brain rewards us with higher spikes of dopamine when a win is 50% likely. And you can’t know whether you’ve won until you click on the list.

8. …and we love being proved right.

(Credit: Thinkstock)

(Credit: Thinkstock)

The beauty of a list is that you can make quick decisions about which items to notice. The confirmation bias means that we pay more attention to any information which confirms what we already thought. With lists this helps us feel satisfied. You might click on the top 10 best movies of the 80s and find you’ve never heard of License to Drive, but that’s fine because you can gloss over that information as soon as you spot Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and The Breakfast Club on the list. The confirmation bias means you’ll pay more attention to these, allowing you to feel good about yourself for having seen so many of the films on the list.

9. A list feels definitive.

Packaging information as a list gives us a sense that the list is all settled and this is the end of the matter. Uncertainty is reduced and we love anything which gives us a semblance of control in an uncertain world. Plenty of psychological research over the decades shows that we have a desire to feel as though we’re in control and that when we do it is good for our well-being.

And it’s not just readers who like them. Journalists love writing lists. Instead of having to craft the piece carefully, making each paragraph logically follow on from the one before, the list provides a ready-made the structure. Best of all they don’t have to think up a last line. The list just ends…

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