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The Psychology of Lists: 8 Human Hooks That Keep People Reading and Sharing Numbered Lists

The Psychology of Lists:
8 Human Hooks That Keep People Reading and Sharing Numbered Lists

By Nick Kellet

When we are born, our name is plucked from a baby name shortlist.As we near death, we worry we’ve completed enough of our bucket list.

Almost every day in-between we organize and are organized by lists. Did we make the cut, did we complete our tasks and not forget the shopping list? Life without lists would fall apart.

What Captures Our Attention: Reading and Numbered Lists 

The printed page gave no feedback. The Internet and Google Analytics have changed that. Jane McGonigal’s book Reality is Broken is all about how feedback enhances real life experiences.

“For some reason our species is drawn to numbered lists” – Inbound Marketing by Brian Halligan and Dharmesh Shah

The way we produce content is now driven by what we consume. Analytics have helped publishers discover what attracts our attention. When we read and share online, analytics track what works best. Publishers, bloggers and brands can now fine-tune the content they create to meet the audience’s needs.

One big trend that has come from analytics is the rise of the list post.

We all love titles like:

  • -101 ways for business to …
  • -7 tips to make you …
  • -5 quotes that will …
Numbered list posts are ubiquitous and appealing. Headlines hook our attention. We are all fast filters. Filtering is a coping mechanism.When I say that numbered lists posts work, I should qualify that. We only see list posts that speak to our own passions. Our brains sift and filter out other lists that pass before our eyes. It happens so fast, we don’t even know we are doing it.

We love lists of things we love. The fact that list posts attract more eyeballs and more shares is what drives publishers to create 30% of content in this trusted format.

So we know lists work, but why? 

What is it about lists that appeals to the human psyche?

As the co-founder of List.ly, where we focus on enhancing the experience of consuming and engaging with list posts, I’ve researched a lot about why lists work. I’ve since curated my research into a slide deck.

From all this research, I’ve concluded eight reasons why lists work (five core reasons plus three bonus reasons that are specific to List.ly and the practice of having an application manage your lists.

Core Reasons

1. Lists Prove We Are Smart

Lists are an easy way to check off what we know. We read lists expecting to already know a lot of the information. Lists are highly self-validating. We like to know our stuff and lists let us self-administer short tests to prove we’re smart.

2. Lists Make Us Smarter

When we find something on a list that we didn’t know or expect, we are often delighted. The list just made us smarter. We can go off and learn more about the new aspect of our topic. Lists give us interesting soundbites to share.

Consuming lists is a learning experience.

3. Lists Set Expectations

The size of the list gives the reader an indication of the time required to read. That’s a valuable signal and it draws people to click on the link or to share.

4. Lists are InfoSnacks

We skim lists. It’s okay to admit. When we see a list, we feel relief. We are all short on time and attention, so lists are highly effective to read.

5. Lists Extend Our Memory

Lists let us forget stuff by relying on the list. Lists are resources we can return to. Lists are also highly shareable.

Bonus Reasons

1. Lists Let Us Give Back, Scale and Collaborate

With List.ly, people can add to the list contributing their own unique insights. When many people contribute to the same list, you get a collective record of the crowd’s wisdom. People vote the best content to the top of the list.

List.ly also makes it easier to share or embed both the whole list or just items on the list.

2. Lists Help Us Find Kindred Spirits

Only people who are passionate about a topic will explore or contribute to a list, so lists are a great place to find people like you. Lists are communities. Lists on List.ly are a networking tool.

We collaboratively filter and utilize our connections to surface what is most valuable. We’re learning that social curation is a coping mechanism to deal with the information explosion that we all experience.

List.ly Lists are living networks or communities. Lists are breadcrumb trails with links back to both useful sources and useful people.

3. Lists Are Organization Tools

Lists are a way for us to collect and categorize our thoughts. Lists keep us organized.

How do you create and manage lists in your own life? Feel free to share your own experiences in the comments below.

Nick Kellet is Co-Founder of List.ly

Photo Credit: Mufidah Kassalias via Photo Pin | Creative Commons

2 comments
crestodina
crestodina

There's another reason lists are effective: numerals stand out against letters in a line of text. They are visually more prominent. So in a world of tweets, subject line and headlines, those numbers help make those titles more visible...


In any case, great list! Final note: listly.com is a great way to curate and embed lists. I use it all the time...

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