We love lists: a list of theories about our list-oriented culture


By Julia Hotz

Forbes’ “100 Richest People in America,” BuzzFeed’s “38 Things You Will Never Experience Again,” Elite Daily’s “18 of the Most Awkward Tinder Conversations You’ll Ever Read.” Without commenting on the content of these articles that have recently appeared on my Facebook newsfeed (I’ll save that for another op-ed),   I would like to point out that these three articles collectively exemplify a key theme of our modern communication culture: the list phenomenon.

This is not to say that lists themselves are a unique manifestation of the millennial age; from witnessing how our mothers make shopping lists of grocery items, to learning about how our forefathers declared a numerically-ordered Bill of Rights, we can conclude that lists have been around as a method of communicating information for quite some time.

However, what is a relatively new phenomenon is the extent to which we embrace consuming information in a numerical list fashion. Indeed, a brief glance at your Facebook newsfeed or a quick browse through any major news organization’s website would support this observation. Although there are probably many data-supported, psychological theories that could explain this, I will instead compile a list (hah!) of four social commentary-oriented reasons that may explain why we love lists so much:

1) The “Too Damn Much” theory: we want to alleviate informational chaos.

This theory contends that we embrace lists because there is “too damn much” information out there for us to process. Indeed, Googling the phrase “important environmental issues” yields more than 69 million results in a quarter of a second.  Clearly, no human can browse all of this information, yet the breadth of these results suggests that there are many environmental issues that we should be aware of. Thus, rather than attempt to read an article talking about environmental issues in general,  we find it more efficient to read a list that tells us “10 of the most important environmental issues,” because this helps to induce order and alleviate  the information chaos induced by the Internet.

2) The “Ain’t Nobody Got Time For That” Theory: we are too lazy to sort information for ourselves.

Distinct from, but related to, the information chaos theory is the lazy theory, which argues that we prefer reading lists because we think that we have neither the time nor the mental ability to comprehend information that is written in standard paragraph form. Thus, instead of having to mentally select the “most important environmental issues” from such a reading,  we prefer a  list that tells us which issues are the most important.

3) The “iPod Shuffle” Theory: we don’t have the attention span necessary to read non-lists.

If it is not our laziness and lack of time that compels us to read lists, then it may be our short attention span that explains such a phenomenon.  Consistent with our generation’s love of the iPod shuffle, SparkNotes and Adderall, perhaps our embrace of lists is rooted in our inability to pay attention to stimuli for long amounts of time. The list, on the other hand, does accommodate a short attention span; all you have to do (you may even be doing it right now) is skim each numerical claim.

4) The “OMG … #4, #16, and #21 = Us” Theory: we use lists to make public social references.

Probably the most salient of the four theories, this final hypothesis suggests that we prefer lists because they are an easy platform with which to make public references on social media. Indeed, when reading the aforementioned BuzzFeed “38 Things You Will Never Experience Again” list, I could not deny the temptation I felt to post the link on a friend’s wall and list all of the numerical items that made me think of him/her.  Similarly, if I witness a friend post a list on another friend’s wall and observe their numerical references to certain items on the list, I may feel obliged to read the list for myself.

With that being said, I do not wish to exempt myself from this love of lists (hell, this article was a lot easier to write by formatting it as such).

However, the next time you post that ’90s-kid nostalgia-invoking BuzzFeed article on your Facebook or skim Forbes’ Top 30 companies to work for, perhaps you will pay a little bit more attention to what you’re doing and understand the reasoning behind why we love such lists.



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