Why we love lists

The article-as-numbered-list has several features that make it inherently captivating: the headline catches our eye in a stream of content; it positions its subject within a pre-existing category and classification system, like “talented animals”; it spatially organizes the information; and it promises a story that’s finite, whose length has been quantified upfront. Together, these create an easy reading experience, in which the mental heavy lifting of conceptualization, categorization, and analysis is completed well in advance of actual consumption—a bit like sipping green juice instead of munching on a bundle of kale. And there’s little that our brains crave more than effortlessly acquired data.

Whenever we encounter new information, our brains immediately try to make sense of it. Once they figure out what we’re seeing in a physical sense, they work to provide personal context and decide if it’s relevant enough to focus on further. The process is instantaneous: we don’t even realize we’ve made a choice in the time our minds have selected one path or another. Our gaze either stops, or we simply keep scanning. Recall a time when you were spacing out while skimming a stream of content and then, without quite knowing why, found yourself pausing to actually process the words. What made you stop and focus? On a physical level, the answer is often simple: difference. Whenever we’re scanning the environment for nothing in particular, our visual system is arrested by the things that don’t fit—features that suddenly change or somehow stand out from the background. A headline that is graphically salient in some way has a greater chance of capturing our eye, and in an environment where dozens of headlines and stories vie for attention, numerals break up the visual field. Consider the contexts in which we’re most likely to debate which article to read: a publication’s home page, a Twitter feed, or a Facebook feed. Most of what we see is words and images (even though it often seems like Web pages or streams are composed of nothing but lists). In that context, numbers pop.

From Maria Konnikova at The New Yorker. In other words, why is Buzzfeed so popular. At a more general level, it speaks to the power of structuring large blocks of information. An alternative memorable way of implanting information in people's heads is through narrative, but it is not as compact as the list.

One of the dangers of the list is that forcing information to conform to that rigid format can influence how we both perceive and receive it. It's the reason Edward Tufte preaches the dangers of Powerpoint, which can “weaken verbal and spatial reasoning, and almost always corrupt statistical analysis.

At Amazon, Jeff Bezos hated when folks would bring giant Powerpoint decks to present to him. While you'd be speaking to your first slide he'd already flipped to the end of the deck, having absorbed it all, and would start firing questions at you about slide 27. After a while he was so sick of the whole charade he banned Powerpoints and forced everyone to start bringing ideas to him in prose form.

Painful for some, but I love writing and dislike making presentations (usually) so I thought it was a great change. Writing is, to me, still generally the most efficient way to communicate ideas in all their complexity. Of course, for some forms of information, like data, nothing beats a well-constructed chart. But most great thinking is stripped of all substance when compressed into a few bullet points, and the time spent formatting slides for a deck is wasted time that few busy professionals can afford.

From a glass half empty perspective, it's alarming how much of the list's appeal lies in our brain's inherent laziness.

In the current media environment, a list is perfectly designed for our brain. We are drawn to it intuitively, we process it more efficiently, and we retain it with little effort. Faced with a detailed discussion of policies toward China or five insane buildings under construction in Shanghai, we tend to choose the latter bite-sized option, even when we know we will not be entirely satisfied by it. And that’s just fine, as long as we realize that our fast-food information diet is necessarily limited in content and nuance, and thus unlikely to contain the nutritional value of the more in-depth analysis of traditional articles that rely on paragraphs, not bullet points.

Still, this list at Buzzfeed of the 25 best Taylor Swift Audience-Dancing Moments of All Time is undeniably great. Tay-tay be rocking out, yo. Looking forward to Konnikova analyzing the brain appeal of the animated GIF in a future post. [I'm only half joking; the hypnotic looped visual imagery of animated GIFs have a hypnotic effect that must trigger something in our animalistic brain wiring]