10 scientific reasons why we can’t stop clicking on lists

Think listicles are just clickbait? Think again – they make serious and complex subjects digestible and appealing because our brains like information organised in a predictable way

Open any news website and one of the first things you will see is a list. While still associated with light-hearted subjects – ‘9 summer dress trends to be seen in now’, for example – news organisations and companies are increasingly using them with serious intent: ‘The world’s most dangerous cities’ in The Economist or Google’s ‘4 things you need to know about the future of marketing’.

Around since the Ten Commandments and amplified in the BuzzFeed era, lists are a great way to break down even technical or scientific subjects into bite-sized chunks of information that readers can take in quickly. But their main appeal is simply that readers can’t get enough of them. A survey by Conductor, a content-marketing software company, found 36 per cent of readers preferred number-list headlines to other types of content.

Neuroscience, psychology and behavioural economics have all produced explanations for why we can’t resist a list, which offer compelling incentives to companies seeking diverse ways to create engaging content. So here, fittingly, are 10 reasons humans love lists – and why they deserve a place in any content marketing campaign.

1) Numbers grab our attention

Amid the ocean of words and images we are exposed to every day across print and online, numbers leap out by virtue of being different. Our eyes are drawn to things that don’t ‘fit’ in a particular visual field, and in a Twitter or Facebook feed crowded with letters and pictures, a figure such as ‘3’ or ‘10’ is graphically different enough to stop us in our tracks, according to this analysis of the list phenomenon in The New Yorker. And the number used does matter – a data scientist’s examination of BuzzFeed’s most popular listicles found that 29 items was the optimum.

One publication using numbered listicles to attract a younger audience is National Geographic. Famed for its magazine, it is using its founders’ commitment to storytelling to drive a younger audience online. A snapshot of its website front page shows lists of notable female pilots and images of cold places to cool down readers in summer.

2) We know the drill

When we read ‘5 Reasons to…’ we know we’re going to get a list that goes from one to five that we can scroll through. Psychologists call the mental maps we build up from experience – and which give us an idea of what’s coming next – schemata. Human brains like this feeling of certainty, which makes lists a great vehicle for subjects that could otherwise sound complex or off-putting.

For example, this list of ’10 batteries with extraordinary stories’ for FirstWord client Saft, the French maker of highly specialised batteries for industry, concisely highlights the breadth and essential nature of its power supply work.

3) It’s a process

According to the now-retired New York University psychologist Shelly Chaiken, people process persuasive messages in two ways: heuristically and systematically. Heuristic processing uses memory cues to digest and form judgement on something, whereas systematic processing requires our brains to carefully analyse the material first. Listicles appeal to the former, which is the easier route for our brains. A headline telling us these are the best, biggest or oldest, a defined number of entries – and an order of importance if it is a descending list – all give us plenty of the cues required to come to a conclusion.

4) FOMO

Can you really afford not to click on a list of the cutest kittens, the best rooftop cocktail bars or the greatest goals in World Cup history? What millennials know as ‘fear of missing out’, psychologists call loss aversion. For companies that lack widespread brand recognition, ‘10 things you never knew about XX’ is a way of piquing curiosity and drawing in readers who would not otherwise stop to read what they have to say.

A ‘need to know’ list also creates a sense of urgency, and infers that what follows is distilled down to the essentials. This can be a useful way to attract readers when companies are publishing content connected to an on-going issue, rather than announcing something brand new. For example, PwC used a numbered-list headline to draw in readers to coverage of its report on gender equality at work – 3 things women need to succeed in their career – according to women.

5) Everyone’s talking about it

Reason number 4 also informs number 5 – lists are very shareable, as your own social media feed no doubt confirms. If a friend shares ‘The world’s top 5 deserted beaches’, it can spark a conversation – other great deserted beaches, the time we visited number 3 together, the horror that is other people on beaches, and so on. For companies, a list is an effective way to open a dialogue with followers and customers without hitting them over the head with a sales pitch.

6) Playing the game

The brain provides hits of the ‘feel-good’ neurotransmitter dopamine when we’re 50 per cent likely to win at a particular game – and when we click on something like ‘The 15 fastest vehicles of all time’, we’re likely to be testing our own knowledge as we go down the list, checking off the ones we knew. But you can only trigger the hit by clicking on the list.

7) The appeal of the echo chamber

Reason number 6 leads naturally to confirmation bias – we pay more attention to information that aligns with what we already think. So film buffs are the group most likely to read a list of the best 50 movies ever made. Within that, they will gravitate towards their own favourites, feeling good that their choices have been included.

In content marketing terms, lists of the best, most expensive or most unusual products can be an appealing way to demonstrate expertise or start a conversation with people in your industry. For example, another FirstWord client, Swiss fraud-prevention technology company NetGuardians, started this year by publishing an attention-grabbing list of the ‘5 cyber-fraud trends banks should know about for 2018’.

8) We’re all busy people

When we click into a list of ‘6 ways to improve data security’, we know what we’re going to get, and we’ve decided in advance that we have the time to commit to six points.

We’re also buying a point of view to save time: a subject-matter expert, be that a company or an academic, has taken the time to curate the list so we don’t have to trawl through the reams of information and opinion available online. Good companies are a trusted source of information for their existing customers and suppliers – and can showcase this expertise to a wider audience by creating lists.

9) Hooked on a feeling

Our brains respond well to content with an emotional connection – so well that it has been given a name: emotionally competent stimuli (ECS). Without a regular injection of ECS in an article or video, our attention wanders. A list, particularly one ranking products, services or events in order of importance, is unavoidably subjective and tells us something about the values and experience of the person or organisation that has compiled it. Lists, therefore, become a way for companies to inject personality into their content, without adopting controversial or alienating positions.

10) I’ve started so I’ll finish

Richard Thaler, the behavioural economics expert behind the ‘nudge’ theory of prompting people to make good choices, also describes the ‘sunk cost’ effect. Once we have invested money, however small a sum, we will go to far greater lengths to read the book/eat the sandwich/attend the event than if we had been given it free. In the case of the list, the sunk cost is time – once the number in the headline has drawn us in, we are motivated to carry on and read the list through to the end.

And on that note – congratulations! You have made it to the end of our very own listicle. But we’re not quite finished…

One final point to note is that, in addition to the scientific explanations, the characteristics of lists have specific appeal to companies hoping to attract a new audience that would not normally find its way to their social media channels or website. As well as being very enticing and shareable, they are great drivers of traffic and hits, and offer good potential for search engine optimisation (SEO) because they can easily be focused around the key words that readers are searching for. So they should definitely be part of your content marketing Top 10.

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