The Five Things I Hate About Listicles

By April 7, 2017Uncategorized

You won’t believe number six!

Okay, I get it. In today’s crowded media environment trying to get attention is about as difficult as threading a camel through the eye of a needle. And once you get someone’s attention, keeping it is just as hard as most people seem to have the focus of a manic butterfly on speed. So, I understand the reasoning behind the listicle; I just don’t like where it leads. It capitalizes on lazy thinking and takes advantage of inherent cognitive biases. I realize they have some value and are here to stay but here are five reasons I don’t like lists with numbers in them.


  1. Just Seeking Attention. When I was a younger, I had an annoying friend who would do and say outrageous things. When I responded he would say in an almost poetic lilt, “I made you look, I made you look!” His sole purpose seemed to be in getting attention. After that there was nothing of substance. Similarly, the current preoccupation with getting “eyeballs” threatens to dilute the message and become more important than providing value and substance. So what if something has been viewed a few million times? I’d rather write a piece that has 50,000 views and 50% of readers value it, than a piece that has a million views and only 1% value it. (Do the math as well as think of the brand perception). In short, the medium threatens to destroy the message.


  1. Emotional manipulation. In their presentation, listicles take a leaf out of the advertisers playbook and resort to emotional manipulation in order to get attention. Marketers have known for eons that people aren’t logical beings, we’re rationalizers and story-tellers and are driven by emotion. Hook that emotion, be that fear or anger, and at least you can get some attention. But that process minimizes the product. If Moses had come down from the mountain and said, “I have here the Ten Commandments of the Lord,” and then added, “You’ll never guess number two and you won’t believe number seven!” it would have rather distracted from the enormity of the moment. It would imply that the material itself needed promoting in a somewhat manipulative and shoddy way. Emotions are like spices that provide interest and taste to the meal but the problem with a lot of today’s communication is that it’s all Tartar sauce and no steak.


  1. Listicles Trivialize. Listicles take advantage of binary brain simplicity and reduce content to the simplest of ideas. This is a problem with the development of social media in general — it doesn’t encourage critical thinking and discernment. We live in a sound bite world that minimizes and misrepresents complexity. Five Reasons You Shouldn’t Eat Junk Foods. Just five? There are five hundred reasons you shouldn’t eat junk food and identifying just five is a misrepresentation of the inherent dangers of a poor diet. This also plays into the anchoring bias — the first number you hear anchors your perception, like an ad or infomercial that initially anchors a product to an artificially high price so that subsequent offers seem too good to refuse. Despite the fact that most of us realize that the initial price is artificial it doesn’t prevent us from not just falling foul of this bias, but actually using it to justify our purchase!



  1. Steps aren’t the same as action. There’s something compelling about numbers and steps as they organize perception, but that’s the problem. They organize it in a way that distorts the material by reducing it into supposedly logical steps. The focus on small numbers, especially in advice about behavior change, also creates a framework that misleads. For example, here are five steps to conquering Mt. Everest. Purchase tickets to Nepal. Buy climbing equipment. Hire a Sherpa. Set up base camp. Start climbing. Easy, right?



  1. Number Hypnosis. Numbers have legitimacy but they fail to convey nuance. Take a look at Shakespeare. We could rename Romeo and Juliet, Five Ways to Resolve a Family Feud. Or how about renaming Hamlet, Three Ways a Ghost Can Influence International Relations? Rather than just enjoying the drama most of the audience would be partially focused on which step they were on at any one time.


In a complex world, binary brain simplicity and cognitive bias predominate and overall that’s not a good thing. It leads to uncritical thinking, stereotyping and bias of all kinds. That’s why I don’t like listicles. So there.


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