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

This is your brain on listicles: It's happier, but a little dumber, too.

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'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.

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).

But the rankings warp the true picture of affluence. Qatar and Luxembourg have crazy-high GDP figures. Once you get past Singapore, the next 20 richest countries are roughly equal, really.

There's almost a $20,000 gap between #2 and #4 on the list to the right. But there are 11 nations with GDP-per-capita between $40,000 and $46,000, according to the World Bank. Japan, #35 on the list, is closer to number #4 (Singapore) than Singapore is to #1 (Qatar).

Rankings present a world divided by equidistant intervals. Reality isn't quite so ordinal. There are many international lists where the U.S. appears in the mid-20s or 30s, when in fact our score is practically the same as countries in the top five. The same is true for U.S. colleges or electronics: In a world where lots of similar things are of similar quality, rankings exaggerate real differences.

5) HATE: Rankings make us dumb

In their new paper "The Top-Ten Effect," researchers Mathew Isaac and Robert Schindler begin their examination of rankings with a fascinating play-it-at-home game that seems, initially, to have nothing to do with rankings.

Look at this box for two seconds and look away: How many dots?

Six. Good job. In fact, the brain can't quickly grasp ("subitize," in wonkspeak) numbers greater than six, which might explain why you never remember new credit-card numbers or new passwords. When forced to assess larger numbers, we break them down into smaller chunks.

For example, try to quickly count, as fast as possible, the dots in this array.

Here's what you probably did: You looked at the square, quickly realized that you couldn't count them all at once, and then, if you didn't give up immediately (as I did), you broke down the square into smaller groups to count sequentially, or you tried to quickly approximate the rows and columns to multiply when you looked away.  

What does this have to do with lists and rankings? Well, most rankings don't end at six. They end at larger numbers like 25, or 100, or 378. That's too much for the brain to process quickly. So, just as we break up large squares of dots into smaller squares, we break up large lists into smaller lists.

College rankings are among the most consequential and controversial lists out there, and they never stop at six. So how do we process them? Poorly.

Isaac and Schindler studied US News & World Report lists and business school applications and made a fascinating discovery. If a business school's ranking passed a logical "border" number (Top 10, Top 25), the change predicted a significant increase in applications. In other words, a school going from #9 to #8 was almost meaningless to prospective students. But schools ranked #11, #12, #26, or #27—right on the "border"—could see significant increases in applications if they improved by just one or two spots. 

Even if you don't think college rankings are a little insane (fact: they are), you have to agree that this "Top Ten Effect" is utterly irrational. We are so obsessed with round numbers in rankings that a school entering the Top 10 significantly changes our opinion of it, while a school eking into the top 11 (or top 12, or top 13) is meaningless.
This is our brain on rankings, and it's not a fully-functioning engine of rationality.

6) LOVE: A list means an ending

People want what they can't have, and in an infinitely varied world, the human brain craves the finite. Lists end. That's a good thing.

We begin to read lists because we know where the end is: It's right in the headline. "27 Ways Your Cat Is Making You Crazy" ends precisely at 27: You know exactly what you're getting yourself into. This sense of ending is satisfying, but as Konnikova explained, it's also an illusion:

We recall with pleasure that we were able to complete the task (of reading the article) instead of leaving it undone and that satisfaction, in turn, makes us more likely to click on lists again—even ones we hate-read. The social psychologist Robert Zajonc, who made his name studying the connection between emotion and cognition, argued that the positive feeling of completion in and of itself is enough to inform future decisions.

7) HATE: A list means an ending

Lists promise a finiteness that doesn't exist. Take this list, for example. There is no way I listed all the reason to love and hate lists. Just because I didn't write them down doesn't mean they don't matter.Rankings can helpfully guide us, but not consume us. Don't let numbers do the thinking for you.