7 Reasons Lists Capture Our Attention (and Confuse Our Brains)

This is your brain on listicles: It's happier, but a little dumber, too.
Google Creative Commons/pattisallamerican

'Tis the season of rankings. December is the national month of numbered summaries of movies, music, and gadgets, where news organizations promise to consume the long year of happenings, digest it fully, and burp out the highlights in a simple stack of digits. (We're hardly above this.) 

Rankings create order where there is chaos. They enumerate the innumerable variety of the world and give us a small sense of mastery over our environment. Lists and rankings are great. They're also devious in both obvious ways (they can be wrong, and not everything is rank-able) and surprising ways that researchers are only beginning to understand. So let's review the case for love and hate.

1) LOVE: Rankings guide us when we need guidance

​News organizations like to publish rankings because you like to read them: Plain and simple.  

There are cynical, financial explanations for this: College rankings, for example, historically made up an outsized share of US News & World Report's revenue, and they've had similarly lucrative returns for other organizations, like Businessweek. But in the holiday spirit, let's give end-of-year lists the credit they deserve.

End-of-year rankings of gifts and music serve an utterly practical purpose: Our attention, money, and time is more limited than our options. The typical American only goes to the movies six times a year, but there are dozens of holiday-season movie openings: Rankings help to narrow our choices. The typical American spends about $750 on Christmas gifts, but there are way more than 750 varieties of the clothes, electronics, books, and tchotchkes from which to choose: Rankings narrow our choices. 

2) HATE: Rankings tell us what to think, even when we assume we're thinking for ourselves

Rankings don't only narrow our choices. They also shape our judgment in a surprisingly sticky way.

In one experiment, sociologists Matt Salganik and Duncan Watts showed subjects 48 songs, listed in order of "most downloaded," played the tunes, and asked them to download their favorites. The catch? One group saw the real rankings, and the other group saw the rankings reversed, with the least popular song listed #1. In the end, the subjects were mostly likely to download the top-ranked song, even if it had a dummy ranking.

wh_inequality_08.jpg

The extension of this finding would be that rankings guide our end-of-year movie schedule and our end-of-year movie appreciation. Rankings shape not only what we listen to and watch but also how much we like it.

3) LOVE: Lists are easier to read, understand, and remember, because of their "visual fluency"

Aesthetically, a list is perfectly engineered for the reading mind.

The left hemisphere, which is time-sensitive, is instantly assuaged, because lists promise a finite amount of information. Our eyes are engaged, because numbers stand out from blocks of text. Research shows we are drawn to headlines that blend specificity and vagueness, and lists (e.g.: 7 Ways to Get Perfect Abs Without Trying) tend to establish a category (abs) while coyly withholding the actual news (7 ways to get them without trying).

But lists aren't just cognitive candy. They're actually easier to understand, and, research has shown, easier to remember. When we jot down grocery items on paper, we don't scribble "eggs" and "lettuce" in random corners of the page. We make a list, because vertical information appeals to people who think spatially. Lists "facilitate both immediate understanding and later recall," Maria Konnikova explained for the New Yorker, drawing on work by the neuroscientist Walter Kintsch, who showed that numbered lists improved recognition and recall of information among his research subjects.

What you might call click-bait, some academics call visual "fluency." Lists are, simply, a more effortless way to consume information.

4) HATE: Lists give us wrong ideas about the world, even if the lists are "right"

The most common criticism of lists and rankings is that they can be wrong. But that's not really a criticism of lists or rankings. It's a criticism of writing. Journalists can be wrong (often are) even when they're not enumerating and ranking their thoughts. They just seem more wrong in lists and rankings. The format is such a straightforward organization of their thinking that it's easier for the reader to single out objections.

Still, one real problem with many rankings, specifically, is that even if they're "right," they can still give us the wrong idea about the world.

To understand why, let's take a very basic list: The richest countries in the world. 

The richest countries in the world, by GDP-per-capita, are Qatar, Luxembourg, and Singapore, according to the IMF. Brunei rounds out the top five. The U.S. shows up two spots later. This might give the impression that Luxembourg (#2) and Singapore (#3) are similarly rich, much more so than the U.S (#7) and much, much more than Japan (#35).

Presented by

Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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