Science Explains Why You Click on End-of-Year Lists

November 25th 2015

Thanksgiving is over, which means it’s now socially acceptable to listen to Michael Buble’s Christmas album in public. It also means that 2015 is coming to a close, so all of the “look back” lists from the year will start to fill up social media.

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But as silly as some of these lists may seem — do we really need to know about the best beards of Instagram in 2014? — these lists succeed in getting people to click, and that’s not by accident.

Here are five psychological reasons that your brain loves lists:

1. Lists hit our attentional sweet spot.

Our brains try to make sense of new information as soon as we get it, and lists tap into the perfect way to organize that information, according to the New Yorker.

That’s why to-do lists or grocery lists are so effective — even if we forget them at home, we can think back to the way we initially organized them, which makes it easier to remember.

2. We categorize things by nature.

Our tendency to categorize things is connected to the fact that we organize new information.

A 2012 study conducted by researchers at the University of California Berkeley and published in the journal Neuron asked participants to view movie clips to determine their responses. The results showed that the participants’ brains mapped more than a thousand object and action categories.

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3.The paradox of choice could be a factor.

Is it possible to have too many options? The theory behind the paradox of choice says ‘yes.’ Barry Schwartz, a psychology professor, wrote a very well-known book called "The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less" introducing the concept of excessive choice. Schwartz poses the question: can too many options or choices make you question decisions before you make them, or even paralyze your decision-making?

Some people say no, the theory isn’t strong enough to be applied everywhere. But when the content is already pre-packaged and organized for you in a list, the mental heavy lifting of filtering out important information is already done. You don't have to make any choices at all, which isn't necessarily a good thing.

4. Sometimes we literally hate-read.

Even if you don’t like celebrities or fashion, you might find yourself scrolling through a list of some model’s 10 best outfits in 2015. Why? There are a few reasons for that, New York Magazine explains, and one of them might be that our hate-reading makes us feel good because we’re looking for “anti-wisdom.”

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In a sentence, we can feel validated through someone doing exactly what we would choose not to do.

“[The commentary] may actually have a boomerang effect in that it reassures us that our opponents aren’t very smart or accurate,” Mary McNaughton-Cassill, a media psychologist at the University of Texas San Antonio, said to New York Magazine.

5. In the end, choosing lists is limiting us.

At the end of the day, there is some pretty compelling evidence that explains why lists are so attractive to us. But reader beware: lists by their very nature cut off content and nuance, the New Yorker warns, and by taking the short-cut, there is information and context that you’re missing. It might be a good idea to limit your list consumption to when you need a light snack.

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Share your opinion

Do you like reading 'end of the year' lists?

No 26%Yes 74%