Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Top 10 Reasons We Like Top 10 Lists

Ok, I lied, I'm not giving you ten reasons for anything. But I will tell you why people are so obsessed with top 10 list and why this is normally a waste of time.

Human beings are by their very natures classifiers. We classify everything. We group by color, shape, weight, width or any other distinguishing characteristic. We feel compelled to put our books in a particular order, as we do with our CDs, which are kept separately. We put labels on species, trees, rocks, and each other. We even match our socks.

The reason for this is the nature of our brains which are designed to gather information and put it into a format that is easy to understand. Think of it this way. Take everything you own and put it into a pile. How long would it take to find two socks? And how much easier does this become when you create a system for storing your junk? The same holds true for the facts stored in your brain. Our brains literally hold trillions of pieces of information. Categorizing makes it possible to search this information in a fraction of the time it would otherwise take, because each category eliminates trillions of possible alternatives that otherwise would need to be sorted through: “Let's see. . . human (ignore animals, minerals and vegetable), white (ignore Bill Clinton), male (ignore Perez Hilton), fat, red coat and hat. . . must be Santa!”

This ability is perhaps the single most important ability we have. If we could not categorize and process the world around us, we could never know what is relevant to our lives, what is dangerous to our persons, or what we need to survive. Without this ability we would not know what is edible, we could not spot family members, we wouldn't know when we need to run or duck, and science would be impossible. This ability to spot patterns and bring order from the chaos lets us live and grow.

But this ability doesn’t always work perfectly. There is a psychological phenomenon called Pareidolia, where we have a tendency to see faces in random objects. This is a subset of something called Apophenia, where humans see patterns in randomness that aren’t there. This is our brain trying too hard to categorize the world around us. Essentially, these two phenomena result in us trying to group things that can’t be grouped. Coincidentally, this is where most conspiracy theories are born.

And that brings us to Top 10 lists. The problem with most Top 10 lists is that the list maker usually is trying to group together items using subjective judgments. For example, they are looking for the "best" or "worst" somethings. But subjective judgments are meaningless as they vary from person to person based on personal preference. Thus, these lists only offer us a glimpse into how this particular person has classified these items inside their brain.

So why do this and why listen? My first instinct is to say that both the list maker and the list reader are engaging in a form of Apophenia, as the list maker is trying to categorize that which can't be categorized to bring order to their world, and the reader is hoping to piggyback on their efforts. But that explanation isn't entirely satisfying because both should know that the list is subjective in nature and thus useless.

So what is really going on? Maybe the list maker has learned that they can exploit the human herd instinct? Maybe people continue to look at “best” lists despite the obvious meaninglessness of the information because they are looking for someone to affirm their own choices. In other words, if this guy lists “Melt With You” as his favorite 1980s song, then you were right to feel the same way. . . your behavior is consistent with the herd. And maybe the list maker knows this and making the list is their way of trying to lead the herd?

Or possibly, people are just trying to check their brain's functioning against how other people's brains function?

Or maybe it really is that our need to categorize is just so strong that we will accept false data, even knowing it is false, so long as it offers the promise of further categorizing our world?

In any event, think twice the next time someone offers you a "best" or "worst" or "most overrated" list. Ask yourself what criteria they are really using before you add their lists to your brain.


56 comments:

Tennessee Jed said...

Andrew - I think most people who make up top ten lists recognize it is subjective. Typically, you will see it in newspapers or magazines such as "Rolling Stone" who know their readers can't resist reading to see how "their top ten guitarists" will track with the magazine's picks. In this sense, the author knows "controversy sells" so to speak. It becomes great bar fodder to rank the top ten world series winners etc.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, It definitely sells. A top 10 list of almost anything seems to attract people. I think it has to do mainly with an overwhelming desire on the part of our brains to categorize the world around us, so we're drawn to the "data" it presents.

BevfromNYC said...

Here's a list posted today that fits perfectly into your topic this afternoon -

From HuffPo, but be warned. This is a very serious list and not one to just get people to think in herd. It's real and meaningful...

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/03/30/death-sentences-and-executions_n_841986.html

AndrewPrice said...

Bev, Thanks. I'll check it out and get back to you. Here's the link:

LINK

Joel Farnham said...

Andrew,

Young Benny's lists must have really bothered you. ;-)

Still, I see what you are talking about. If the author announces his criteria ahead of sharing his list, then a person is better prepared for why his list is accurate or important or whatever.

Cracked.com has numerous lists, some of which I strenuously disagree with. It is similar over at Listverse.com.

It is fun to look through them. I have spent a few hours if not days going through the lists. Some information contained in those lists are great. These guys pride themselves on accuracy. Their opinions may be leftist, but their accuracy is phenomenal.

I will include the links in the next post in order to give you time to get it out of the spam filter.

ScottDS said...

Do I have to ask what precipitated this article? :-D

Ah, lists... there is even a whole subgenre of reference books dedicated to lists of things. I own a few myself. I'm actually quite the reference book whore but I have such bad retention that I can never remember what I read.

Re: Apophenia, I recall an episode of Star Trek: Voyager in which 7 of 9 exhibited a form of this. I believe it was titled "The Voyager Conspiracy."

You guys'll appreciate this - after that episode, the first person I thought of as an example of Apophenia was Michael Moore. (Though the left isn't the only guilty party.)

AndrewPrice said...

Bev, On this list. I've seen this data before. A group of leftists put out a "study" that concluded that America, China and Iran account for 95% of the world's capital executions.

BUT, the US is negligible in this list. You could just as easily swap out the US for any other country and reach the exact same conclusion -- even countries that don't do executions.

Joel Farnham said...

Listverse
is highly organized.

Cracked
usually is humorous, but sometimes they hit some homeruns.

AndrewPrice said...

Joel, I think everyone likes looking at lists, and they tend to be fun to prepare. I think it's something that just fits naturally with our brains.

I think my reasoning in the article is correct, but let me add another caveat. Sometimes, these lists are useful when you are looking for information in an area that you know nothing about. Say for example that you want to find good techno music and you know nothing about it. Finding 3-4 "best of lists" might be a good way to get an introduction -- at least so long as you can trust the people making the lists.

Generally though, you do need actual criteria for any of these lists to be useful.

In terms of Ben, actually, this is an article I've been planning to write for a long time, even before he came along. But it fits with his recent articles, that's for sure. I just find it fascinating that people love these lists when most of them are truly meaningless.

AndrewPrice said...

Joel, You came through the spam filter without help! :-)

I'll check those out.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, Ben is just the latest motivation. Lists have been bothering me for years because people keep churning them out, without any objective criteria being used to evaluate them, and yet people get quite upset if the lists don't match what they would have included. It's like arguing about which type of donut tastes better... there just isn't a right and wrong unless you start including objective criteria.

In terms of Ben though, yeah, that still bugs me -- which is why I'm doing Pulp Fiction this Friday to shoot down another one of his stupidities. You would think that someone given a platform that reaches a lot of people would take some time to understand what the heck they are talking about and why. . . "know thyself grasshopper." But he didn't. Grrrr.

In terms of Apophenia, I've been meaning to write about that in greater detail, but just never had the time. This really is the basis for that -- that we try to categorize so much that we over-categorize. And it is what leads to things like conspiracy theories. Give a human any set of numbers and they will find a pattern. Then you add in things like the fallacy of hindsight and confirmation bias and these conspiracy theories really take root and become an obsession with people.

So we should always be careful about seeing patterns too quickly.

AndrewPrice said...

P.S. Scott, the other thing that drives me crazy with lists is that idiots put them together, their information becomes a grand display of their ignorance, they get called on it and quickly realize how poor their list is, and then they try to escape blame for their failure by saying "I was only trying to generate conversation." No, you are an idiot, that's the real problem. Next time before you speak. Grrrr.

Anonymous said...

Hands down, Krispy Kreme Chocolate-covered, cream filled, are the absolute best donuts in the whole world - yum! ;)

TJ

AndrewPrice said...

TJ, I'm with you 100%!!! Mmmmm. :-)

And that's an objective assessment! LOL!

CrispyRice said...

Hey.... aren't you the one with all those "Top 10 whatever Movies" lists??

Hmmmm...

Personally, I like top 10 lists because they go down easy without much thought. ;)

AndrewPrice said...

Crispy, Those are Top 25 lists... that's different! ;-)

Just kidding. I'm trying to use objective criteria like how often they are cited as influential, whether they continue to be shown on television, and whether they introduced new genres or subgenres. I'm not just saying "these are best."

But even with that said, there is admittedly a good deal of subjectivity within the lists and in terms of what should be on them. I'm not saying the lists are correct as fact... just opinion based on certain mostly objective criteria.

BevfromNYC said...

Okay, so is that why I have an irrational need to segregate each color of M&M into separate piles before I eat them? Or am I just a latent racist?

T_Rav said...

Hmmm...so Andrew, what I'm getting out of this is that you're not the biggest fan of Wonder Boy Shapiro.

On another note, yay! Pulp Fiction on Friday!

AndrewPrice said...

Bev, That makes you a latent racist! LOL!

Just kidding.

Seriously, this is the same thing that causes that. Humans are programmed to bring order. That's why we categorize, sort, separate, etc. It's in our very nature. And sometimes we over do it -- hence Apophenia and Pareidolia (which accounts for a lot of ghost sightings). Also, sometimes it goes very wrong and you get obsessive compulsive behavior, where things not only need to be sorted, but also lined up and not touching etc. etc.

Interestingly, there are also people who have suffered head trauma who can no longer recognize patterns or faces because the parts of their brains that cause them to sort M&Ms are damaged.

AndrewPrice said...

T_Rav, That's a fair assumption. I have nothing against him personally, but he's written a couple articles that truly upset my brain. It's a good thing my head came with crumple zones.

Pulp Fiction should be fun! :-)

Tehachapi Tom said...

Andrew
Of all the blogs I have visited I would have to say Commentarama is in the top ten. If this statement is because my brain is skewed in it's perceptions then so be it.

AndrewPrice said...

Tom, I would say that's objectively true! LOL!

ScottDS said...

You know, I just realized if I took all the time I spent organizing my music collection on iTunes (including scouring the net for better album artwork and correcting metadata), I could've recorded my own album!

Whenever I peruse the occasional "How do you have your movies sorted?" thread on the Home Theater Forum, it amazes me. Some people organize by genre, studio, year, etc. Alphabetical is just fine with me.

And as for books, I'll keep series (like Star Trek) in order but everything else is simply put on the shelf, tallest to shortest. And going back to our Sunday conversation, I just picked up the book on Kubrick's Napoleon. Even the cheap mass-market version is as big as a shoe box!

Re: conspiracies, this probably deserves its own thread but I just watched JFK again and you know what? I don't think anyone will be satisfied with the answers one way or another.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, We sort everything. And it makes sense. As I say above, how long would it take to find your socks if there was literally no order to your house? But some people are way over the top.

In terms of movies, I've been putting all of mine on harddrives with the idea being that it will be a lot easier to watch them than trying to dig through a bazillion DVD stored somewhere. I'm pretty happy with the solution so far. I just need a new tv that I can hook up to my laptop.

I'm glad you got your book... shoe box. LOL!

In terms of JFK and all conspiracies generally. They are generally impossible to dispel because of the way they are formed and some of the self-defense mechanism they include. For example, they are often premised on the hindsight fallacy, where people assume that because something happened it was made to happen. Then you have people seeing patterns in meaningless data. You have confirmation bias where people only accept the facts that help their case and reject the rest.

Then you get the self-defense mechanisms which say that anyone who disagrees is part of the system trying to protect the lie. That makes it impossible to reach these people.

Take the idea that steel can't be melted with jet fuel. The truthers believe that -- even though every single structural engineer in the world will tell them they are wrong. In fact, there was a sugar fire in Florida a couple decades ago which burned so hot (4000 degrees) that the burning sugar melted steel. Yet, the truthers will deny these facts and will accuse you of being part of the cover up or being blind to the truth.

And the main reason for this is that there is a powerful element of self-aggrandizement in these theories, where the people who believe them like believing them because it makes them feel special that they have seen a "truth" that no one else can see. It makes them important on a global scale. . . at least in their minds.

Plus, you have the false belief that any denial is proof that someone is trying to hide the truth, but failure to deny is an admission.

And why haven't the thousands of people who would know the truth come forth? Because they're all afraid or they are part of the conspiracy... the perfect, all powerful conspiracy by the same people who were so incompetent they couldn't hide a simple ____.

So no matter what you offer in the way of proof, the conspiracy theorist will never believe.

Joel Farnham said...

Scott,

I thought so too once, until I saw the History Channel's version and computer re-enactment. It becomes far more obvious that Oswald acted alone. I am not saying people didn't take advantage of JFK's death. Nor am I saying there weren't people who wanted him to die. He won by a percentage that Richard Nixon could have had a re-count and challenge of votes and Nixon would have won. JFK's Administration became Camelot after extensive revision of history.

All, except one of my teachers, wouldn't say anything bad about JFK. That teacher also turned me onto Atlas Shrugged. JFK wasn't a hero. He ran his boat, basically a souped up rum-runner/cigarette boat, into a Japanese Destroyer. Because he was Joe Kennedy's son, he got away with it. Other Captain's would have been found guilty of negligence despite his efforts after the incident.

T_Rav said...

Joel! Sshhhhh!!! Caroline Kennedy and the History Channel will hear you!

Joel Farnham said...

Andrew,

My computer can drive a TV. All you need is a TV that accepts HDMI and a video card that produces signals for HDMI. Nividia GeForce 460 is a decent higher than mid-level graphics card. The software is designed to use several monitors. Up to three. One can be a TV.

Joel Farnham said...

T_Rav,

Do you really think so? Are the rumors true? Are there people monitoring this blog?

HISTORICIAL ENFORCEMENT DIVISION said...

THIS BLOG HAS BEEN BLOCKED FOR HISTORICAL IN-CORRECTNESS. READERS ARE REMINDED THAT THE KENNEDYS WERE PERFECT AND ANY CLAIMS TO THE CONTRACT ARE MADE BY CRIMINALS AND UNAMERICAN TYPES.

KENNEDY = GOOD
REAGAN = BAD

AndrewPrice said...

Joel, I know, I just don't have a new TV yet. I moved last year and that kind of threw everything into a bit of chaos and my television set up hasn't recovered yet.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, T_Rav and Joel, Now look what you've done! We've been blocked by the History Channel's politically correct enforcement division. :-(

Joel Farnham said...

Andrew,

I'm sorry. :-(

Ed said...

I love these articles. They make my head spin, but in a good way!

Joel Farnham said...

You know, sometimes I hate YouTube. I listen to one song, Jimmy Dean's PT109, just to find out what it was about. And all of a sudden, it is sounds of the sixties. Songs like Ballad of the Green Beret, One Tin Soldier, Scott McKenzie's San Francisco... grrr... It is very hard to stop.

AndrewPrice said...

Joel, That's the problem with catchy tunes. Whenever I go down my selection on my computer I often have to skip again a couple letters in the alphabet or I get bogged down in the same songs over and over because they're just that catchy and once I see them I want to hear them.

AndrewPrice said...

Ed, I'm glad you're head is spinning in a good way. Spinning in a bad way would be like in The Exorcist! LOL!

The Management (definitely NOT BevfromNYC said...

Dear HISTORICIAL ENFORCEMENT DIVISION,

Says who?

Sincerely,
The Management

PS Shooting kittens (or puppies) ((but not mice)) in the face is STILL against our policy.

That is all.

AndrewPrice said...

Management, "That's all"? As in, that's all that against our policy? Cool. . . ;-)

HISTORICAL ENFORCEMENT DIVISION said...

THIS IS TO INFORM YOU THAT ONE OF YOUR MEMBERS, "T_RAV," HAS BEEN TAKEN TO OUR HEADQUARTERS FOR INTERROGATION AND HIS LAPTOP CONFISCATED. HE WILL SOON BE FORCED TO DIVULGE INFORMATION ON A CONSPIRACY TO DE-BUNK THE CAMELOT "MYTH" (AND SOMETHING ABOUT A PLOT TO SHOOT ALL KITTENS IN THE FACE). IF YOU WISH TO AVOID BEING IMPLICATED, YOU WILL CEASE AND DESIST ALL COUNTER-PROPAGANDA WORK IMMEDIATELY.

THANK YOU.

Joel Farnham said...

Hysterical defacement,

Come to my neck of the woods. I'll show you a hill billy welcome. :-)

AndrewPrice said...

Viva la T_Rav!!!
Viva la T_Rav!!!
Viva la T_Rav!!!
Viva la T_Rav!!!
Viva la T_Rav!!!
Viva la T_Rav!!!

And while I'm at it, Kennedy was a loser philanderer whose minor accomplishments have been blown out of proportion and his flaws ignored by liberals who desperately need to believe in a supreme leader who will lead them all to the promised land.

Take that History Channel!

Now get back to your Ancient Almanac shows!

AndrewPrice said...

Joel, LOL! Big thumbs up! :-)

The Management (definitely NOT BevfromNYC said...

Dear HISTORICIAL ENFORCEMENT DIVISION,

It would behoove you to release our T-Rav immediately as it should be pointed out that we have no specific rule against shooting Historical Enforcement Divisions in the face.

Your full cooperation will be expected as it should also be noted that we are fully locked and loaded...

Very sincerely,
The Management

T_Rav said...

Wow, what a weird night. Can't believe I blacked out and lost all that time studying for class. Oh well.

Joel Farnham said...

Hysterical Defacement,

You made a wise choice. :-)

T_Rav said...

Is someone going to tell me what's going on? Because heck if I know what's been going on; all I remember is being at my computer and feeling something poke me in the neck, and--that's about it. Like I said, kinda weird.

By the way, you know what I just randomly decided not long ago? Making fun of the Kennedy's--that's not cool. Seriously, we should all knock it off. Also, you know what else isn't cool? Shooting kittens in the face. So we should knock that off too.

AndrewPrice said...

T_Rav, Snap out of it buddy! You've been brainwashed. Kennedy was fool. Look deep within, you'll see the proof. It's filed under "Kennedy, Camelot myth," next to "Obama, Idiot."

Joel Farnham said...

Hysterical Defacement,

You are cordially invited to the hill billy section of the US. That's in my section.

T_Rav said...

Don't worry, Andrew, their indoctrination wore off pretty fast. All you have to do is place your hands over your ears, shut your eyes, and say to yourself a few times, "Bay of Pigs...Bay of Pigs...Bay of Pigs..." I hear plans are in the works to replace this with "Libya...Libya...Libya..." for the remaining Obamatrons.

AndrewPrice said...

T_Rav, I hear the new "Libya, Libya, Libya" is very effective at deprogramming former Obama-cult members. . . at least those who have already gone through the "incompetent. . . broken promises. . . worse than Carter" program. :-)

Or you could just send them to Joel's neck of the woods!

DUQ said...

O...M...G... I leave you people alone for one evening and look what happens! If men in black suits show up at my door, I'm going to be quite put out!

Joel Farnham said...

That's okay DUQ. Send them up my way. I'll give them a hill billy welcome. :-)

BevfromNYC said...

Hey, Joel, is that where the term "billy club" comes from?

Joel Farnham said...

Bev,

Not saying. ;-)

AndrewPrice said...

DUQ, Things didn't really get out of hand until T-Rav got kidnapped.... lousy History Channel cops.

AndrewPrice said...

Bev & Joel, That's where "Billy Beer" came from too! ;-)

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