By The Numbers: Top 10 Reasons We Love Lists

“The discipline of writing something down is the first step toward making it happen.”

– Lee Iacocca

Gold top 10 winnerEver since Moses came down from Mt. Sinai with the original Top 10 List, humans have obsessed over numerical rankings. We don’t do well with fuzziness and uncertainty. We like things clear, concise, and (as with the 10 “thou shalts”) set in stone.

We’re each on our own quite march to greatness, and that march puts us ahead of — or behind — everyone else in the universe. Indeed, here are the top ten reasons we love lists in the only format that matters.
1. Lists give us the illusion of control.

And as our world continues to buzz louder and louder, rankings and ratings become even more important to our sense of sanity. Whether it’s knowing the five best exercises to lose weight or the 21 places you must see before you die, having a ranking of quality and quantity is the psychological equivalent of having a club in your hands: It allows you to stride through the information jungle with confidence. Lists are blunt instruments, but sometimes a blunt instrument is all you need to tame the beast.

2. To remember (and to forget).

We’re living in a hype society — constantly focusing on the next thing, the new thing. The year-end list is our single chance to pause, to see what held up over time — and to note, by omission, what we got overexcited about. Remember Evan Almighty? Well, neither do the Top 10 movie lists!

3. They’re web-friendly.

If anyone loves lists more than the mainstream media do, it’s the non-mainstream media. A Google blog search for “Top 10 list” returns rankings of “ways investing is like sex,” “hottest smart babes in Hollywood” and “reasons why you should not stop posting Top 10 lists.”

Lists are inherently bloggy-friendly. They’re bite-size, they’re opinionated, and they’re a guaranteed spur to conversation, which is to say argument. But hey, clicks are clicks.

4. Words suck! Numbers rule!

At least, that’s the operating principle of much media today. People want the essence! Newspapers need to be like TV! TV needs to be like YouTube! Enter the list — the tapas menu of media, the sonnet for the era of PowerPoint.

5. Universe is random and senseless.

The alternative to summing up the year in any field with a big list is weaving its elements into some grandiose what-it-all-means theory. But sometimes life is just one damn thing after another. And so are lists: they impose order without making false connections. On a top ten list, apples and oranges live together in juicy harmony.

6. We crave justice.

In much of our world today, everyone is special, every contribution is valuable, and every child gets a trophy just for playing. Not in Listsworld. In Listsworld, there are values. Things are good enough or they are not, and someone has made a damned decision about it. In Listsworld, every day is Judgment Day.

7. God made us do it.

What do Yahweh, the Buddha and David Letterman have in common? They adore lists! There’s something magical about distilling wisdom into a single gleaming digit, which may be why so many religions use lists, from the Eightfold Path to the 95 Theses to the show-offy 613 laws of the Torah. An essay on morality would have been more nuanced than 10 commandments but harder to remember.

8. That other guy is a moron.

Lists are a way of asserting authority. But they’re also an invitation to dispute authority. Do people really enjoy reading a list they totally agree with? No! Good lists engage readers, enrage them and flatter their ability to think of better examples. A list isn’t truly right unless it’s a little bit wrong.

9. Life is short.

In the end, a list is about one thing: the individual who wrote it. Making a list is like making a mix CD for a crush; you do it in the hope that if someone sees what you believe matters and is great in the world, he will see to your core and know who you are.

Lists are a means of asserting individuality, saying “I was here” — especially at the end of the year, when we reminisce about time past and think about how much time we have left. While we are still around, we want to be known and we want to be heard.

10. Lists come to an end.

Nothing else really does. Relationships fade, careers slow to a tickle — even The Sopranos signed off with a “Hmmm…” But lists stop and let us move on to the next thing.

So here’s where this list stops and the next thing begins — your march to greatness.

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