The Roots of List Lust

Why we're obsessed with counting down life's best, worst and weirdest


“Top Ten Signs Your Country is Too Fat.” “100 Ways to Love a Cat.” “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover.” Admit that you want to see all these lists, by David Letterman, YouTube’s TravisAndJonathan and Paul Simon, respectively. We love lists! The media obviously knows this, but why is it so? Why can’t you resist Seven‘s Best of the City issue, or the Most Beautiful People, or Vanity Fair’s Best Dressed? Clinical psychologist Suzana Flores and neuropsychologist Rita Eichenstein—representing different approaches to explaining human nature—offer an inside-outside look at how lists mess with, and soothe, your mind.

All in your mind (Flores) All in your brain (Eichenstein)
Why do we love lists? They help us remember things, like groceries or Christmas gifts. They keep us from procrastinating; it’s therapeutic to check something off. They give us a sense of control in an uncontrollable world. They relieve stress, and, when we’re constantly bombarded with information from multiple sources, they help us make sense of things.


It’s your left hemisphere. The brain needs to organize all the incoming information, which is chaos. The right hemisphere decides if something is interesting or meaningful. If it is, it gets sent to the left hemisphere. For “left,” think “L”: linear, logical, linguistic … and it likes lists.


What’s the downside? Let’s say you’re too rigid, and you’re having a baby. You make a list of how people can help you. Someone deviates and does something you didn’t want. Even though they’re trying to be helpful, it’s going to annoy you. You can’t see the bigger picture, which leads to aggravation.


People range from one extreme to the other: excessively rigid to excessively chaotic. All mental illness can be structured by rigidity and chaos. Schizophrenics are all over the place; people with obsessive-compulsive disorder are too rigid. If you’re too intent on keeping lists, you need more visualization, which moves you more into the right hemisphere.


If you were doing a list, what would it look like? A problem with lists is that we tend to put them in a hierarchy. I would call it “Seven Recommendations,” and add, “Now, what suggestions would you make?” When you put the top 10 this or that, that’s your reality; not theirs. I see this in couples all the time, when one partner puts something at No. 1, and the other puts it at No. 9. That can cause conflict. I would prioritize it. After leaving your right and left hemisphere, information goes one of two places: your frontal lobe, which has something called the executive function—the CEO of the brain—to organize it, or your hippocampus to remember it. People like authority. It’s not for everyone though. Right-brained people will feel too restrained.


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