Fighting clickbait with clickbait.
Listicles are big business in the land of web content. In 2014, lists proved to be the No. 1 most-shared article type, each one socially shared at an average rate of 21,000 times per month. (Even GOOD is not immune to the listicle’s charms.) Though lists have been around for a long time (pop quiz: how many commandments were there?), they’re becoming one of the major ways we consume journalism, even about serious topics (see “9 Questions About Syria You Were Too Embarrassed to Ask”). And, for good or ill, their lack of nuance might just be limiting our comprehension.
Below, an entirely unironic list of five reasons why that’s the case.
1. They Let Our Brains Off the Hook
It’s not hard to see why our brains are drawn to “snackable”—or easily digestible—content like lists. Because they’re numbered, we know upfront approximately how much time and energy we’re about to expend on a listicle. As The New Yorker puts it, before we’ve even begun reading, “the mental heavy lifting of conceptualization, categorization, and analysis is completed[...] a bit like sipping green juice instead of munching on a bundle of kale.” When encountering longer and more challenging information, our brains will immediately begin to sort that information spatially—and along the way, process and store it. Lists have already done that hard work for us, letting our brains off the hook.
2. They Cater to Our Distraction
Internet users only read about 28 percent of the words on a standard webpage. Some studies also suggest that our average attention span is only about 2.8 seconds. The National Center for Biotechnology Information is a bit more generous, estimating in 2013 that we’ve got about eight seconds before we’re on to the next thing (that’s one second less than a goldfish, by the way, and down from 12 seconds in 2000). Listicles anticipate our tendency toward distraction, grouping ever-smaller bits of information into sections, so just when we’re about to lose focus and go on to something else—perhaps “4 Quicks Ways to Help You Stay Focused”—we’ve got a new bite-sized chunk of text to snack on. In recent years, neuroscientists have revealed that the connections in our brains are far from fixed, with a plasticity to them that allows them to change neuronally in response to our habits. So the more we get accustomed to scanning and skimming, even within one piece of content, the more we crave (and click on) novel stimuli that we’ll never entirely absorb.
3. They Prevent Us From Making Our Own Mental Pictures
Listicles, particularly those created on the Buzzfeed model, are notorious for containing more animated GIFs than they do text. Though images have been a staple of journalism for hundreds of years, it’s a relatively new phenomenon for content to essentially “speak” in pictures. This isn’t a problem in and of itself, but research on reading comprehension has long demonstrated that the more a brain is able to create its own imagery in response to any concept it’s ingesting, the better it’s able to truly retain that information. As text shrinks and we encounter cute cat GIFs more frequently, our minds are shifting to expect and demand that imagery already be provided for us.
Here’s a picture, since your brain expects one.
4. They Prioritize Surface Over Substance
Material presented in a list can potentially facilitate quick recall, but does little to contribute to more indelible recognition. This is something that Meagan Norlin, the Twin Cities-based regional director of learning centers for Lindamood-Bell Learning Processes, says contributes to an overall failure of information comprehension. In her experience, even quick recall doesn’t always happen. She says she’s given her clients very short content—we’ll go ahead and call it “snackable”—to help them develop their reading skills. When asked what the content was about, even immediately afterward, “the client says they don’t remember,” as if the information went “in one ear and out the other.” The reading that occurs is for the sake of completing an activity, without retaining anything.
It may be great fun to read “8 Completely True Facts about Hippos,” but that quick-hitting list doesn’t provide enough background information for you to really understand and recall hippo facts. It’s not unlike cramming rather than studying over the long-term—you get the surface facts, but at the cost of more permanent, in-depth knowledge.
5. They Toy with Our Emotions
In 2006—long before the word “listicle” was in the Oxford English Dictionary—two sociologists, Matt Salganik and Duncan Watts, conducted a music-based experiment featuring a list of 48 top-ranking songs. They showed two groups of people the same list, reversing the order of songs for one group. So No. 1 became No. 48, No. 2 became No. 47, and so on. Afterwards, participants were asked to download their favorite songs included in the rankings. Findings showed that the best-ranked song was routinely the one downloaded, regardless of whether it was actually No. 1, or if it was merely No. 48 masquerading as the top song.
Though you might not rush out to buy the No. 1 puppy in “7 Dog Breeds That Like Humans Better Than Dogs,” that listicle will likely prevent you from recalling other information about the breed that’s buried in your mind. Your feelings about the breed might even start to change. And that’s to say nothing of more sensationalized headlines—otherwise known as clickbait—that listicles in more unsavory realms of the internet tend to employ. Yellow journalism isn’t exactly the newest kid on the block, but emerging neuroscience about clickbait suggests that the more persuasive a piece of content is, especially if it’s attempting to persuade you to be happy or angry about something, the more likely it is to go viral.
You may think your critical thinking skills enable you to rise above such manipulative tricks. Since you’ve stuck around long enough to reach the end of this listicle, you’ve got a chance. But as content strategists get savvier and your brain becomes more resistant to deep comprehension, that might not always be the case.