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10 amazing scientific facts about list-based news articles

By Dean Burnett, The Guardian
Thursday, February 28, 2013 7:51 EDT
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young asian man making a list via Shutterstock
 
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List-based articles are very popular on the internet. Here are 10 amazing scientific facts that help explain this.

People like lists of things. They’re everywhere on the internet. You name any subject matter you can think of, odds are there’s a list about it. Nowhere is safe. Even here, on the Guardian Science section, one of the most popular articles in recent months is a list. But why are lists so popular? Well, here are 10 astonishing facts about lists that may help explain it.

1. People will tend to remember the first thing on a list

Lists are commonly used as tools for assessing people’s memory. Word lists are a typical tool for testing someone’s ability to remember and recall items, and can be designed and adapted to analyse a wide variety of human memory abilities. One of the things uncovered by this sort of research is the primacy effect, meaning people are more likely to remember the first thing they are presented with, due to the way attention works and the demands of memory formation. So when you try to tell someone about this list, you may end up saying “The first thing on the list was that you’re more likely to remember the first thing on the list”.

2. The human brain may automatically structure information in list form (although it may not)

Much research has been conducted into how humans store and structure their knowledge and thoughts. Collins and Quillan in 1969 proposed their Hierarchical Network model, where concepts and categories are stored at a certain level in the brain/mind and the properties of these are listed “below” (metaphorically). However, this view has met with some criticism, mainly based on how human memory or knowledge is rarely shown to be so rigidly organised. Still, it shows how fundamental lists may be.

3. Lists take advantage of a limited attention span

There is an increasingly common view that internet use shortens a person’s attention span. While a lot of this is Greenfield-esque paranoia about new technology, evidence suggests our visual attention is attracted to novelty, and on the internet novelty is always only a click away. There is data to suggest that this is how internet use works, and much of the web is dedicated to exploiting this. Rather than paragraphs of narrative, pushing the limits of a typical attention span, lists offer novelty every few lines, and thus are more likely to avoid the dreaded TL:DR response.

4. You probably won’t remember all the things on a typical list

A lot of lists are lists of 10, or some multiple thereof, given that the majority of humans have grown up using the decimal system. However, short-term memory, or “working memory” as it’s known to psychologists, has an average capacity of 7 (+/-2). This means you can hold an average of 7 “things” in your short term memory. These can be letters, words, or even sentences, as long as they count as one “thing”. This is the limit of your short term memory. These things can be transferred to the long term memory if you rehearse or encounter them enough, but this means that if you try to remember everything on this list to tell someone about later, you’ll be unable to recall 3 items on average. This bit might be one of them, which would be ironic.

5. People are very good at grouping random things together, so lists can be about anything

Probability theories of category formation demonstrate that we tend to lump very different things together in the same category, (e.g. Football and Chess have very few features in common, but both would be considered a type of game). This tendency to group things together despite their differences mean lists with a nominal subject matter can include things that wander off topic quite bizarrely, like a list of scientific facts about the human body including a discussion of atomic structure.

6. Popular things can be listed

Lists are very popular, so logically lists about popular things would be more popular again. Bacon, sexy ladies, funny cats and tweets, all of these regularly end up on lists. You may say this point isn’t scientific in any way, but I include it as evidence for the above point. Which means it is scientific in a very tenuous way.

7. Lists fit the way humans tend to read

It has been demonstrated many times, in scientific studies and Martin Robbins’ blog, that the way people read things on the internet follows an F-shaped pattern. While this is detrimental to blogs and articles with continuous prose, this is obviously beneficial for lists of things, as the reader is reading in a pattern that largely follows a list structure.

8. There are many popular types of list, not just on the internet

Lists predate the internet by some considerable margin, and aren’t necessarily constrained or dependant on it. Examples include shopping lists, bucket lists, guest lists and hit lists. These lists are invariably detached from the subject matter in some way; nobody ever buys a shopping list, bucket lists rarely feature buckets, a guest list is rarely seen inside a party/club, and there are no records of someone being killed with an actual hit list. Contrastingly, Craigslist was created by someone called Craig. To date, there is no evidence of a popular list of all the angles at which a ship may list, suggesting that list formats are incompatible.

9. Some entries on a list are likely to be just padding

As mentioned, most people use the decimal system. As well as using words like “amazing”, “astonishing”, “Incredible” etc. in the title (which are impressive sounding but technically impossible to disprove), the majority of lists will be a list of 10 things, or a multiple thereof. This will inevitably lead to someone preparing a list and including things that shouldn’t really be in it in order to make it 10 items in length. This makes it look “proper”. See the point before this one for a demonstration of this happening.

10. People will tend to remember the last thing on a list

Lists are commonly used as tools for assessing people’s memory. Word lists are a typical tool for testing someone’s ability to remember and recall items, and can be designed and adapted to analyse a wide variety of human memory abilities. One of the things uncovered by this sort of research is the recency effect, meaning people are more likely to remember the last thing they are presented with, due to the way attention works and the demands of memory formation. So when you try to tell someone about this list, you may end up saying “The last thing on the list was that you’re more likely to remember the last thing on the list”.

Dean Burnett is on Twitter as @garwboy and welcomes people with a short attention is it lunchtime yet or not?

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2013

[Young asian man making a list via Shutterstock.com.]

 
 
 
 
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