Listicles receive a lot of undeserved hate. You can easily find articles complaining that listicles are ruining everything from journalism to our brains. Some commenters complain that listicles are lazy and overdone.
But, listicles are one of the greatest guilty pleasures of all time. We are actually designed to enjoy listicles. So many writers and publications create listicles because people are more likely to read, engage, and share them more than any other content.
The list doesn’t destroy culture; it creates it. Wherever you look in cultural history, you will find lists — Umberto Eco, author of “The Infinity of Lists”
You are here because you refused to be shamed out of your love of listicles. Long live the listicle!
Here are seven intriguing things about the ubiquitous listicle:
1. Listicles Pre-Date the Internet
Contrary to popular belief, the listicle is not a creation of the internet era. Humans have always loved lists. Magazine editors have featured articles with headlines like “7 Exciting Sexual Positions to Try Tonight!” or “5 Potentially Fatal Chemicals that are in your Cupboard Right Now!”
Editors of glossy grocery store checkout aisle magazines know how to attract attention and sell magazines.
But, even before the advent of glossy magazines, listicles were used to grab attention. Sir John Lubbock gave a speech where he listed the top 100 books he thought the educated class should read. He excluded living authors from the list. When his speech was later published, it was a best seller, and many of the books he listed also enjoyed an increase in sales — it was like a 19th century Oprah’s book club.
You could also argue that the collection of Seven Wonders of the Ancient World was an ancient travel listicle.
Martin Luther’s revolutionary 95 theses may be one of the most influential listicles in history.
2. The Bible Has Some Important Lists
There is a strong argument that part of the reason we love lists is cultural. The Bible, whether or not you are a believer, has had an oversized influence on Western culture. It also contains quite a few different lists.
Some of the most famous biblical lists include:
· The 7 Days of Creation
· The 10 Commandments (perhaps the most famous listicle of all time)
Christian tradition also has a list of 7 Deadly Sins and the 7 Contrary Virtues. The fact that the 7 Deadly Sins are much more well-known than the 7 Contrary Virtues is both a testament to the power of the right headline and people’s attraction to the dark side of life.
3. We are Psychologically Inclined to Like Lists
Our brains are hard-wired to categorize the world around us. It’s what we do. Our brains are also hard-wired to look for shortcuts in processing information. Thinking takes up a lot of energy. The more efficient we are at thinking and problem solving, the more likely we are to live long, happy lives.
Lists feed into both of these impulses. Lists allow us to categorize everything efficiently. Our brains reward us for feeding it lists.
Lists allow us to feel more productive. When we make it through a list, we feel like we have done something. Reading through a straight narrative article doesn’t always give us that same satisfaction. Lists also help us feel in control.
When we see a listicle, we know how many sections there will be, we always know how close we are to the end. We often get a little dopamine hit with every number of the listicle we read — just like crossing off an item on your to-do list.
We love listicles because they literally make us feel good.
We like lists because we don’t want to die — Umberto Eco
4. Lists Tap into Our FOMO
The fear of missing out (FOMO) is such a powerful human drive that everyone from companies that program slot machines to social media algorithm coders have studied how to harness it.
Lists tap into our FOMO. We want to know what information we might be missing out on. When we see a list headline, we become curious about the contents.
If you scan past a list, you will find yourself still thinking about it several minutes later. When a list triggers your FOMO, it becomes almost impossible to resist clicking and reading.
5. David Letterman is the King of Listicles
One of the staples of David Letterman’s long run as a late night TV talk show host was his Top 10 Lists. Many people tuned in just to watch the lists. While not every item on every list was equally hilarious, it was impossible to resist the pull of the Top 10 List.
Letterman was a comic genius. He understood human psychology. He used his Top 10 Lists to trigger FOMO. You had to watch because you didn’t want to be the only one who didn’t see the Top 10 the night before.
Lists may be as old as writing, but David Letterman is a big reason why listicles remain a staple of the internet.
The list is the origin of culture. It’s part of the history of art and literature. What does culture want? To make infinity comprehensible. It also wants to create order — Umberto Eco
6. The Latin Word for List is Album
In English, we use the word album to mean a collection of either photos or songs. We have photo albums and musicians release albums for us to listen to.
But, in ancient Rome the people would gather around a board or sign that had been painted white to read the latest public notices which had been inscribed there. Album, which is derived from the Latin word albus (white) came to mean a list of names.
German academics in the 16th century resurrected the old Latin word album to describe their books with blank leaves where they would collect their colleagues’ signatures and other souvenirs. Eventually, the word made its way into English to describe a very specific type of collection or list.
7. Magazine Editors Understand the Magic of Teasing Lists in Headlines
The next time you feel like complaining about clickbait titles, head over to your favorite grocery store and read the covers of the magazines there. The best sellers will all have at least one prominent listicle related headline.
Magazines need to sell copies to stay in business. Lists sell. Lists are big business. Lists have always sold well, and will always sell well.
Remember the next time you start to look down on listicles or listicle writers, that the humble listicle is good enough for both Martin Luther and the editors of Cosmo.