Listicles have become so common and pervasive on social media that they have now got their own special name. Listicles - or list-type articles - have gained popularity over the past few years with people jumping on the bandwagon to create list after list to feed the demand. In fact, 35 of Buzzfeed’s top 50 articles in 2015 are lists!
So why do we love reading listicles so much? I have to admit they are a guilty pleasure of mine, no matter how long the list, or how irrelevant the information, I am rarely able to resist the urge to click it and read it till the end.
Here are 4 of the reasons why our brains love these listicles. (There are many more, but then this listicle would be too long!)
1. Fear of Loss
As humans we all are subject to this innate fear of loss, which is capitalised upon by listicle writers who frame their headlines to take advantage of this. For example, check out the following two headlines.
The headlines above all suggest that should we decide against reading the list, we could potentially lose out on things. We could lose out on these important life lessons, or we could have missed those seventeen Harry Potter references forever. Listicle headlines are written in a way that preys on our loss aversion. Loss aversion is the tendency for us as individuals to have a strong preference for avoiding losses instead of acquiring gains (Kahneman & Tversky, 1979). So in the pursuit of avoiding potential losses, we click the listicles to find out what they contain.
2. Categorisation of Information
Chaiken’s 1980 heuristic-systematic model suggests that we have two types of information processing routes: heuristic processing and systematic processing. Heuristic processing involves reliance on simple cues to form attitudes (such as heuristics and biases) and is low effort in comparison to systematic processing which is effortful and requires detailed processing of information.
A listicle headline aids systematic processing of information because it positions the subject in a pre-existing category such that we know what kind of content to expect and gives us an idea of how much content to expect as well. For example, check out the following two headlines:
We know straight away the listicle will be about the job of night shift nurses and how grueling it is and we are expecting 9 things.
And this one tells us right away that there will be websites that can teach us a new skill and there are 37 of them.
While reading a headline could subject us to the usage of some heuristics or biases, the way the information is categorised immediately also helps us to be able to use systematic processing and our brains love effortlessly acquired data.
3. Confirmation Bias
People enjoy reading listicles when they can agree with the people who have written them, for example: The 30 best places to travel alone or Top 10 fairy-tale towns in Germany. When one reads through the article and find that the author has included items that one would have put on the list as well, he/she feels good. Why does that happen?
This is a result of confirmation bias, which means that when we read the listicle, we pay more attention to any information which confirms what we were already thinking. We love to be proven right and it feeds our ego, as well as our drive for sense-making (Chater & Loewenstein, 2016). The experience is satisfying and occurs even though we could only be correct about three or four items on a twenty-item long list.
4. Honoring Sunk Costs and Consistency
So after clicking onto a listicle, we now have a choice. Do we continue reading it, or do we click away? Or if we’ve already read several points on the list, do we want to read the rest? What if we don’t actually want to know the rest?
Personally I find it very difficult to stop reading a list halfway if I’ve already gone through several items, and this is due to the sunk cost fallacy. (I mean come on, do I really need to read about 27 reasons Singapore is the most delicious place on Earth? I grew up there, I don’t exactly need a list to tell me why!)
Using rational economic theory, it would make sense to stop reading if I was no longer interested as only incremental costs and benefits should affect decisions and not historical costs (Thaler, 1980). But having read through part of it, I feel like I should just finish the listicle - an irrational decision but I am honoring my sunk costs, which can be in the form of money, time, effort or others. In my head I am thinking: I have already spent time and energy reading part of the list, I might as well finish the whole thing.
This can also be attributed to our need for consistency, where since we have already undertaken to read the list, we want to remain consistent and finish the list, and we may even end up thinking that we enjoyed it - and the next time we see another listicle, we’ll click on it again and read it to the end again.
Aronson and Mills’ 1959 study found that participants who had to put in considerable effort into a task would enjoy it more. Their participants were assigned into one of three groups: severe initiation, mild initiation and the control group. Those in the severe group had to read aloud some sexually oriented material while those in the mild group had less embarrassing material and the control group did not have to read aloud any embarrassing material. They then all partook in a group discussion subsequently. What they found was that those in the severe group reported enjoying the group discussion more than those in the other two groups despite the discussion being actually really boring.
Aronson, E., & Mills, J. (1959). The effect of severity of initiation on liking for a group. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 59, 177-181.
Chaiken, S. (1980). Heuristic versus systematic information processing and the use of source versus message cues in persuasion. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 39, 752-766.
Chater, N., & Loewenstein, G. (2016). The under-appreciated drive for sense-making. Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, 126, 137-154.
Kahneman, D., & Tversky, A. (1979). Prospect theory: An analysis of decision under risk. Econometrica, 47, 263-291.
Thaler, R. (1980). Toward a positive theory of consumer choice. Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, 1, 39-60.