10 Reasons You Will Read This Medium Post

A primer on neural networks and heuristic biases


1. Neil Strauss told me you would

Neil Strauss wrote a book called The Game. That book told me I’d have more luck with women if I wore crazy hats at night clubs (see: ‘Peacocking’). It also taught me about false time constraints. If you approach someone and say, “I’ve got to get back to my friends in five minutes but I wanted to ask you…”, then the person you’re approaching will be less likely to feel you are intruding or being invasive. They lower their barriers because their subconscious rationalizes that they will only have to endure you for five minutes if things get awkward — they become mentally prepared for a known finite encounter. So too with lists. You know from the outset that this thing is only going to be 10 points, that’s how long you will have to endure. The end is in sight right up front, as is the reward (in this case, learning 10 reasons why you will read this), and this certainty for its own sake is both alluring and reassuring.

Exhibit A: Peacocking

2. Your brain is a lazy drug addict; its drug of choice is content and its preferred method of delivery is “as easily as possible”

Your mind craves information. In fact, it craves information for the sake of it, regardless of whether that information leads to a reward. Scientists call this “information-seeking-behaviour,” and its compulsion is rooted in the evolutionary adaptation of our dopamine neurons. Uncertainty feels to the brain like a threat to your life and it’s easy to see how treating information as a reward would be useful to increasing our chances of survival. Unfortunately, the dopamine centers are not good at discerning the useful from the useless, opting instead for the broad filter “does this decrease uncertainty?” And so, as the internet alters the way we consume content, the general “law of least effort” directs our preferred method of content consumption. Specifically, “if there are several ways of achieving the same goal, people will eventually gravitate to the least demanding course of action.” In our era of near-infinite information, lists provide unparalleled cognitive ease of satiating the content craving instigated by our dopamine centers. Lists remove the mental burden of conception, categorization, and analysis thereby limiting uncertainty around a subject that the list, again, determines upfront. Simply put, lists feel better.

3. You trust anyone dressed as a police officer

Lists evoke an appeal to authority and a deference that has been drummed into you since you were a child. Think back to your first day of preschool. How did you make sense of your new and chaotic surrounding? You abided by a list of rules that told you what and what not to do (Rule 1: raise your hand if you want to speak, Rule 2: … etc.). And you almost certainly did it unquestioningly for you lacked the intellectual fortitude to question the constructs of the system (don’t feel bad, you were only four years old). Think back even earlier, what was your first encounter with dogmatic morality? Likely the 10 Commandments, that most immutable of lists. This pattern of critical lists handed down by authority repeats itself throughout our lives (the Amendments to the Constitution, the FBI’s Most Wanted list, even the sacrosanct Eight Rules of Fight Club) and reinforces a habit loop that suggests positive feedback in exchange for some degree of assumed validity and compliance. When you see the title of a list, no matter how asinine (look no further than Buzzfeed), you are likely to fall into the habit of assuming a degree of legitimacy.

Banksy NYC

4. You love sex

When you have sex, your brain releases large amounts of the neurotransmitter dopamine (amongst other chemicals and hormones). Dopamine makes you experience “pleasure.” It is also a culprit in the habit loop of addiction, heightened attention, motivation and, importantly for our purposes, reward. Keystone habits, like making your bed, are effective at increasing productivity and well-being because task completion triggers the release of dopamine. Similarly, we click on lists because reading them is pleasurable in the realest sense. We know lists are finite, self-contained, and imminently completable and so our mesolimbic pathway releases dopamine in anticipation of the task completion to come. Lists are an easy way to get a small win and evoke the pleasurable feeling of a job well done. Maria Konnikova, author of Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes, argues that this process is self-reinforcing: “we recall with pleasure that we were able to complete the task (of reading the article) instead of leaving it undone and that satisfaction, in turn, makes us more likely to click on lists again—even ones we hate-read.”

Chemical symbol for dopamine

5. There is nothing sexier than a 10

Look at this number: 37.9. Aghhh yuck. So ugly. Now look at this: 100.00. Ahhhh beautiful. Economists Michael Lynn et al. found that when customers were asked to pump their own gas, 56% of sales ended in .00 and an additional 7% ended in .01 (which suggests an attempt to stop at .00 and marginally missing). When restaurant patrons tip, they are likely to favor round numbers. A paper in Psychological Science found that students who take the SAT and end up with a score just below a round number — like 990 or 1090 on what used to be a 1600 point scale — are much more likely to retake the test than those who score a round number or just above. Psychologists call this round number bias. You prefer round numbers (like Top 10 lists) and may in fact associate them with higher quality.

McKayla Maroney not impressed after scoring 15.083 on the vault in the 2013 Olympics

6. You donated a dollar to your alma mater

Do you know why your alma mater tries to get you to make a donation, no matter how small, as soon as possible after graduation? Because if you donate $1 today then you are far more likely to donate $100 in five years and $1 million in 20 years in a series of ever increasing increments. It’s called the foot-in-the-door technique and has been a psychological weapon of salesmen for years. The technique works due to what social scientists call “successive approximations.” When a subject goes along with small requests or commitments, such as clicking the link to this list, that subject is more likely to continue in a desired direction and feel obligated to go along with larger requests, such as reading this list to completion.

7. You are searching for the Philosopher’s Stone

Lapis philosophorum, or the Philosopher’s Stone, is the fabled alchemical substance said to be able to turn base metals into gold and grant immortality. It is perhaps most widely recognized as the object of Lord Voldemort’s desire in the first Harry Potter book. But the story of the Stone transcends the literal and becomes allegory of mankind’s deep-seated yearning for a quick and simple fix to an overwhelmingly vexing problem (in the case of the Stone, the problem of death). Desire for a quick fix is the business model of drug dealers, psychics, spiritual healers, con men, and (in certain cases) pharmaceutical companies (see stats on the abuse of Adderall). The informational equivalent of the Philosopher’s Stone is a self-contained and wholly digestible chunk of information that promises deep insight and requires little or no work. Lists are the holy grail of this apocryphal temptation. They are the allure of profundity and insight and answers for the convenient price of minimal cognitive exertion. We are continually drawn to lists in the hopes of acquiring comprehensive wisdom without putting in the hard work.

8. You want to prove me wrong

You want to feel unique. Indeed we all do. As David Foster Wallace puts it: “Everybody is identical in their secret unspoken belief that way deep down they are different from everyone else.” And any assumption that you are predictable feels insulting, it detracts from your individuality. When you see a title that tells you it will predict your actions, part of you clicks that link just so you can have the option to walk away from the list halfway through and prove me wrong. In Yiddish, this is called being “Davka.” You are proud and you want to prove that my blanket statement doesn’t apply to you, that you are in control of your destiny. Feeling like you control your destiny makes you happier. You click this list for an easy opportunity to reassert that control — you can prove me wrong at any point after all (although you may be cutting off your nose to spite your face).

Cutting off nose to spite face?

9. You involuntarily live in a palace

You are not so good at remembering random numbers or bits of information. Can you recall the number I said was ugly moments ago? What about the score McKayla Maroney got on the vault? George Miller famously proposed that people are able to keep track of a “magic number 7 plus or minus 2” chunks of information in short term working memory. Those memories then decay over time. However, you are exceptionally good at recalling where you sat when you went for dinner with your friends last week or the route you took to get there. It turns out that your brain is good at remembering spatial information. This cognitive strength was supposedly first documented by the Greek poet Simonides of Ceos after surviving a banquet-hall collapse. When asked to recall who was buried in the debris, he found he was able to reconstruct the building in his imagination and remember where each of the guests had been sitting, despite having made no conscious effort to memorize this layout.

The generalized version of Simonides’ epiphany is known as the method of loci, or memory palace. Evidence suggests your brain automatically and involuntarily categorizes information that is sees and that it processes this information spatially. Since lists are spatially organized by design and seek to categorize by intention, they reinforce natural cognitive tendencies and facilitate easier recall and absorption. Lists are appealing because they are engaging without being demanding. One can rest while undergoing stimulation. Receive without giving. They appeal to our proclivity for spatial reasoning and categorization.

The secret to Sherlock’s memory: The Memory Palace

10. You’ve gone this far…

Maybe you hated this list. Maybe you disagreed with every proposition and found it painful to continue. You could have walked away at any point between 1 and 10. But you didn’t. As you progressed you became increasingly committed to seeing this through to completion — you succumbed to the sunk cost fallacy. Spurred by the cognitive quirks of framing effects and loss aversion, you felt compelled to finish this list as you progressed from point to point, despite the fact that the time spent on each point is irrecoverable, i.e. a sunk cost. Farmville and World of Warcraft are so addictive partially because they are mired in a pit of sunk costs. Players can never get back the time they have spent but they keep playing to avoid the pain of loss and waste. As the blog You Are Not So Smart puts it, “Your decisions are tainted by the emotional investments you accumulate, and the more you invest in something the harder it becomes to abandon it.”

(Source: Farmertips.com)

In the end, we have what Charlie Munger calls the Lollapalooza Effect: when multiple psychological biases combine together in the same direction, the effect is compounded on a tremendous scale. It’s no wonder that Buzzfeed’s list of its 50 Best Posts of 2013 contains 37 posts that are themselves list. So don’t feel bad when your time drains into the black abyss of Buzzfeed, Medium Top 10 Lists, EliteDaily and 9GAG. You never stood a chance.

(Also, here is a list of 40 Adorable Animals.)


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