A List of Reasons Why Our Brains Love Lists

The New Yorker:

6 TITANIC SURVIVORS WHO SHOULD HAVE DIED.” “THESE 9 NAZI ATROCITIES WILL MAKE YOU LOSE FAITH IN HUMANITY.” “5 INSANE PLANS FOR FEEDING WEST BERLIN YOU WON’T BELIEVE ARE REAL.” These are just some of the lists that the comic strip “XKCD” recently joked would result from retrofitting the twentieth century’s most newsworthy events with modern, Internet-style headlines. Despite the growing derision of listicles exemplified by the comic, numbered lists—a venerable media format—have become one of the most ubiquitous ways to package content on the Web. Why do we find them so appealing?

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 preëxisting 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.

his type of organization facilitates both immediate understanding and later recall, as the neuroscientist Walter Kintsch pointed out back in 1968. Because we can process information more easily when it’s in a list than when it’s clustered and undifferentiated, like in standard paragraphs, a list feels more intuitive. In other words, lists simply feel better.

Read the whole story: The New Yorker

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