Reasons We Love Lists (In No Particular Order)

By Peter Cronin | Wednesday, August 26, 2015 | No Comments

Standing in the checkout line at my local grocery store the other day, I was struck by the magazines stuffed into the racks on either side of me. Fully a third of them sported headlines featuring lists –100 Best Beatles Songs of All Time, Hollywood’s Top Ten Leading Men, Five Ways to Lose Those Extra Pounds, etc. Just when I started wondering cynically to myself why people insist on having everything boiled down to something as simple as 1-2-3, I remembered what I was holding in my hand – a very long grocery list.

In the cluttered, crowded, media-mad world we live in, we need lists. Maybe that’s why they seem to be the number one way (oops, sorry) that people communicate in the blogosphere. Lists keep us together, on time, and on task, on a daily basis. They skim, they filter, they summarize, they distill. In a world saturated with more information than we can possibly begin to process, lists help us sort through the junk and get to the good stuff.

Lists also interrupt and engage on the newsstand. In a recent article in The New Yorker magazine, author Maria Konnikova suggests that sometimes it all comes down to numbers.

“In an environment where dozens of headlines and stories vie for attention, numerals break up the visual field,” she says. “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…In that context, numbers pop.”

Konnikova also cites research from psychologists Claude Messner and Michaela Wänke that points to a “paradox of choice.” The more information we have to process, the more choices we have to make, the worse we feel. In that scenario, she says, a list provides the promise of a definite ending that is “both alluring and reassuring.”

When I think about it, I’ve been leaning on lists my whole life, from the Top 40 countdown when I was a kid to the tally of daily tasks that lives on my desk. I may find all these lists a bit annoying at times, but here’s the good news – now that I’ve finished writing this blog entry, my to-do list just got a little shorter.

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