Tuesday, January 21, 2014

We're Listing

Have you read an internet list lately? You know the ones: "The Twelve Signs You Worry Too Much," "The Seven Things Happy People Do Everyday," or "The Five Foods You Are Eating Right Now That Might Make You Grow Tentacles." Those lists, the ones that seem to be everywhere now, but are particularly ubiquitous around the close and start of a year.

How do internet lists make you feel?

The hubby and I got in a chat about these over the weekend, and as always, being married to a scientist both a) made me really think about the (seemingly innocuous) published list trend in a fresh, new way, and b) took the fun out of just occasionally enjoying the lists mindlessly.

(Sorry, honey, I'm calling you out, with all of your "truth" and "validation" and "but how/why/where/when was the study that shows that conducted?" What a buzzkill. Don't worry, though, you know that I keep you around because you are so cute, and no double-blind study is required to prove that.)

When media ask the question, "Why don't Americans want to point to science to prove/disprove their beliefs?" I can tell you that, sometimes, the answer is, "Because dealing with whole truth is less fun." But is there truth in these lists? There is some, right?

These lists may point to findings in completely legitimate research studies, or might be the product of good investigative journalism. What they lack, of course, is the whole story—the whole truth, placed in the whole context. This was Mike's main point: they aren't exhaustive, they aren't sufficiently descriptive—in short, they aren't enough, especially if you are going to make significant behavior changes based upon them. The lists tend to make us list—we read the items, then sway from one place to another—but do they give us what we need to right ourselves to equilibrium in the end?

So, back to my question, how do internet lists make you feel? 

At their best, for me, they feel like good reminders of things I already know, but tend to forget or not practice as much as I'd like. "Yes, I should just let the little things go if I want a happy marriage, no I shouldn't eat trans-fats if I want to live a long life, etc." At their worst, they feel overly pat and simplified, e.g., "If you want to reduce your stress, do work that you love!" Well, can we all do work that we love all the time? Really? I'm pro-"do what you love," but I'm also pro-"get paid so you can live." Those things don't always mesh, and hearing out-of-context statistics that let you know that you are doomed if you keep working hard at a job that is not the dream you had for yourself when you were eleven is not exactly helpful in—you guessed it—reducing your stress. Devoid of their original research underpinnings, and lacking the support required to get you from point A to point B, seemingly simple pieces of advice can take on new, yucky lives in our heads. What's that phrase, "the only person who enjoys advice is the one giving it?" Behind every list may be a group of people happy that they finished the list and got paid, a pretty good result for any advice-giver.

With all this in mind, I present for you my list, something to think about the next time your gut tells you to click on something like, "The Seven Activities That Promise Wealth, Health, and A Fancy Car by Next Tuesday."

The Top Five Reasons Your Life Is Not Fully Represented In a List

  1. You did not participate in any of the research being highlighted in these lists.
  2. You are infinitely complex.
  3. You can make some of the "good" choices on the list and some of the "bad" choices, and still come out with multiple outcomes—you are not in control of everything.
  4. You can listen to this advice and apply it for fun, but you never need to listen to anything that just makes you feel crummy, for crumminess sake.
  5. The scientist I live with says so, and he is what some people might call, "crazy-smart."
Have fun listing, everyone.


  1. I took a break from writing an Internet list to read this! So I apologize in advance for the list I'm about to unleash on the world, which, indeed, will mainly make me feel good when I get paid for it.
    I actually thought of you when I was writing that last one, and about your post vis a vis diet and exercise pushes in the New Year, so I made sure that all the examples were not about food and weight loss. Course, then the editors went and put a "food is evil" picture on the blog to illustrate it. Can't win 'em all.

    1. Carrie, I liked your list this morning---I knew the study you were referring to when you mentioned ego depletion! It's sitting in my "Handbook of Self-Regulation," right here on my desk. You were actually my example during my talk with Mike in defense of lists: Carrie writes them, and you trust Carrie!

  2. Those lists are so sneaky. Something compels me to click on some of them, especially if they are short. But in the end, I feel a little used after reading them. Some are just fluff and have no real content. Some make a clearer stand but they lack research to back up their claim.
    I feel the same way when I read most magazines left at the doctors office. Full of fluff stuff that I already knew, and that doesn't give me any helpful direction should I want to try to implement any of their ideas.
    Ergo, I am not a fan of the lists, but helpless to stop clicking on them.