4 Science-Backed Reasons Our Brains Love Lists

Lists are readily recognizable, bite-sized, and easy to digest. No wonder they make such fetching brain food.

Which article would you rather read? "A Synopsis Of Recent Construction in Shanghai" or "Five Unbelievable Future Buildings In Shanghai?"

Probably the tantalizing second one. It's so bite-sized and easily digestible, more like drinking a smoothie than munching on a handful of kale. We can't really help it, says New Yorker writer Maria Konnikova: "there’s little that our brains crave more than effortlessly acquired data."

Which is why, she says, our brains are so magnetized by the list-as-article: they draw us in with their differentiation, tell us that it's oh-so-easy to read them, and feel better in our brains than actual prose. Here's why.

1. Lists draw in our attention

Each object in a scene competes for your attention, the neuroscientists tell us. The things that actually capture our attention are the most conspicuous ones, the objects that suddenly change or standout among a background.

The list is the opposite of camouflage.

"A headline that is graphically salient in some way has a greater chance of capturing our eye," Konnikova says, "and in an environment where dozens of headlines and stories vie for attention, numerals break up the visual field."

2. Lists are intriguingly ambiguous

A study of American and British readers found that they liked headlines with the right balance being creative and uninformative:

  • "THE SMELL OF CORRUPTION, THE SCENT OF TRUTH"
  • "FACE TO FAITH"

Lists are much the same, Konnikova contends: they get us to click without spelling the whole thing out.

3. Lists are spatially organized—and we love spatial organization

Why do we remember what we read in physical books better than what we read on devices? Because memory has a spatial dimension. This, Konnikova finds, is another reason we love lists:

it’s hard to memorize through brute force the groceries we need to buy. It’s easier to remember everything if we write it down in bulleted, or numbered, points. Then, even if we forget the paper at home, it is easier for us to recall what was on it because we can think back to the location of the words themselves.

4. Lists feel better

Paragraphs, for all their majesty, appear cluttered upon a screen; a list with its accompanying whitespace feels cleaner and more intuitive to our brains. We're biased toward tasks that feel easy—psychologists call it fluency—and we shrink from tasks that are difficult. So the same reason that you're procrastinating on that complex, long-term project is the same reason you're reading this instead of the original New Yorker piece: if content is cleanly laid out and pre-digested, we'll get the rewards of reading much more quickly and at a much lower difficulty level.

The reason we love lists, then, is the same reason products need to be simple: our brains are always looking for the clearest signal toward the quickest reward—without all that messiness of paragraphs.

Hat tip: the New Yorker

[Image: Flickr user Ajith]

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