We like lists because we don’t want to die.
– Umberto Eco, The Infinity of Lists
What’s a listicle? It’s an article written in the form of a list. You know, the ones you see with titles like ‘11 Things to Never Say to a Man Whose Head Has Been Sheared Off by a Sheet of Glass’ or ‘25 Lesbians Who Look Like Justin Bieber’ (wait! come back!).
Depending on your taste they can make you laugh or simply confirm that humanity is a lost cause. Websites like Buzzfeed and Listverse grew famous for them, newspapers embraced them, and people, inevitably, started to hate them.
They are the purest textual expression of a distracted, modern mind. So it’s probably worth asking: what are they doing to our brains?
1. Greatest hits
Humans have always been drawn to lists. Moses decided that ten was the magic number and the Greeks agreed to have Seven Wonders of the Ancient World (chosen because of the five known planets, plus the sun and the moon). Reducing the world to a grocery list makes it easily digestible, tells you when it’s going to end, and lets you know if you’ve got time to go to the loo.
2. Love at first click
Your typical listicle has a Super Amazing Capitalised Headline That Grabs Our Attention, tells us how long it’ll be, and intrigues us. (Listicles are killing our brains? Oooooh! How?) Our brains are drawn to numbers in headlines, Maria Konnikova tells us, because they ‘pop’. People know most listicles won’t require a big time commitment. And people share them.
3. Hey, good lookin’
The listicle itself is another example of text drawing more and more heavily on graphic principles. They give you plenty of white space and separate sections, which is helpful because our brains like to locate and memorize information spatially. Each particle is its own argument, so it’s perfect for skimming while waiting for the bus. See how easy this is? You’re already halfway through!
4. Just between you and me…
There’s an implicit pact between writer and reader in a listicle. I promise to be engaging, says the writer. I’ll give you little chunks of mini-argument that you can digest easily, quickly and separately. I won’t give you a structure – A, so B, but C, conclusion D – rather, my numbers will aid you “in organising what is otherwise overwhelming” (David Wallechinsky, author of The Book of Lists).
5. Reading patterns are chang– wow, what a cute cat!
Congratulations if you’ve made it this far: most people only make it through 28% of the words on a webpage. Listicles are tailor-made for this world of interruptions, because interruption is part of the structure. Lose your place? Start wherever you like. Skip a number? Doesn’t matter. And when you finish the article you’ll get a tiny shot of pleasure for completing the task, which is in itself enough, argues social psychologist Robert Zajonc, to inform future decisions. Like reading more lists.
6. Goldfish 1, Humans 0
The average human attention span decreased from 12 seconds in 2000 to 8 seconds in 2013, according to a recent US study. Your average goldfish comes in at 9 seconds. The good news is that human brains are characterised by neuroplasticity: we can change our brain structure by changing our behaviour, and vice versa. There is substantial evidence that cognitive activities like meditation, language learning and brain training have major beneficial effects on our neural structures. Old habits die hard; the challenge is to turn them into new habits.
7. Are the listicle’s days numbered?
All things are cyclical and a simple search reveals plenty of news stories attacking the listicle, but there’s no evidence of it slowing yet. In the meantime, you have a choice. Next time your mouse hovers over a headline, consider for a moment whether it’s what you really want – and let’s face it, we all like fast food once in a while – or whether you’d prefer something slower, more substantial, and satisfying.