Ten Reasons We Are Seeing An Excess of Lists of Ten Things We Should Know

By Malcolm MacIver | June 14, 2011 8:10 pm

Lately I’ve noticed lots of articles with titles that are variations of “Ten Things You Should Know About X.” I became so convinced this was not just a figment of my paranoid imagination that I did a search for “10 things” OR “ten things” in Google News (with quotes) and was immediately rewarded with more than 676 hits. This is impressive, since Google News searches over a limited time horizon. The top hits Du Nanosecond were: “Mitt Romney’s the frontrunner: 10 things the first big Republican debate showed”, “10 Things Not to Do When Going Back on Gold”, “10 Things We Learned at UFC 131”, “Top 10 things to do in your backyard”, “Steve Jobs: ten things you didn’t know about the Apple founder”, and my personal favorite, “Ten things you need to know today”.

What accounts for this ten-centrism? My first thought is an old joke. You’ve probably heard it: There are ten 10 kinds of people, those who get binary numbers, and those who don’t. Part of what I like about this joke is that it captures a bit of the arbitrariness of our penchant for counting in tens rather than twos. There is, on the other hand, the non-arbitrariness of how many bony appendages jut out of our pentadactyl palms. But, a list of the “Two things you need to know today” doesn’t seem to do justice to the complexity of modern life. So herewith is my list of the Ten Reasons We Are Seeing An Excess of Lists of Ten Things We Should Know:

1. We don’t have time to read anymore. Knowing we are going to get just ten things to process is comforting in its promise not to drain our attention from facebook and twitter.

2. Ten is close to the approximate size of our working memory. The size of our working memory, the amount of stuff we can recall from lists of things to which we’ve been recently exposed, is about seven (at least for numbers). I seem to recall there being a “plus or minus 2” factor here, in which case the upper limit for most of us mortals is nine items.

3. Since writers can’t make a living any more, we are sliding into an era of bullet point-ism. Anyone who has had a teacher who cares about writing has been warned by this teacher that making lists of bullet points in our essays is no substitute for actual writing in which thoughts are carefully connected to one another with transition sentences. This takes far too much time to work in any feasible business model for writers today (I’m trying not to use the word “nowadays” because the very same teacher who warned me not to write in bullet points also told me that this word was to be avoided). For one thing, they have to compete with bloggers like me who write for basically nothing. Ergo, the era of the articles of “ten things you should know,” which are typically not much more than bullet points.

4. In many cases, there’s more than ten things that you should know, or fewer than ten things that you should know. But, like “decades,” “centuries,” and other arbitrary anchors in the otherwise continuous flux of events and time, the writer doesn’t have to justify ten, because that’s what every other writer is chunking things we should know into.

5. It’s a way for pentadactyl animals to feel superior to unidactyl animals. No doubt if the planet were run by one-fingered/toed creatures, we would live in a George-Bush-like world of black and white. Downside: it takes longer to read “Top Ten” lists than “Top Two” lists. Over evolutionary timescales, this problem could result in unidactylism eventually reigning supreme.

6. At this point in the list, with four more to go, we enter the fat and boring midsection of the list of top ten things you should know about lists of ten things. It’s basically not remembered, so there’s really no point in putting anything here. Ditto for 7, and 8.

9. Because of the well documented recency effect, it’s time to start having content in our list of ten things again. I recall reading an apropos adage in a publication like Business Week that was like a pina colada to my information overloaded brain: “the value added is the information removed.” When it comes to digits, it seems that “the functionality added is the digits removed” – at least if our evolutionary history is any kind of guide. Our Devonian (350 million years ago) ancestors had 6-8 digits. In going down to five, and therefore lists of ten points, we’ve gone from fairly low achieving vertebrates to the spectacular successes of most subsequent animals by reducing our digits to what’s really needed.

10. If we’ve maintained our concentration to this point in the list, we will be rewarded with a bit of humorous fluff that helps bind some of our anxiety about the essential meaninglessness of our lives, and — especially — our time spent on reading yet another list of ten things we should know.

Image: Logo of a home and garden show in Australia. Correction: “didactylism” in #5 changed to unidactylism – thanks to @Matt for pointing out the miscount!

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Aliens, Apocalypse, Geology

Comments (23)

  1. Never really thought like that while reading various 10 lists but now that I think of it, your article just fits in….oh and removing 7 & 8 was a nice touch

  2. I write these kinds of things all the time. I will try to use your logic in numbering the list.

  3. Colin

    11. This is the invariable page that links you to the hundred other 10 things you should know pages…

  4. Paul

    Strangely, I see more odd numbered lists. “17 world’s weirdest animals” “13 more weirdest animals” “23 even more weird-ass animal pics.”

  5. Excellent post – and how true. It will definitely go in my list of the 10 best posts I’ve read recently!

  6. Malcolm MacIver

    @Stephanie, @Santanu, @Miss Cellania, @Colin – thanks for the comments, they are in my top ten “post comments” list already. Paul – interesting observation. I’ve refined my methodology to only search in the titles of Google News articles. Here’s the results (adding some other numbers):

    allintitle: 2-things OR two-things
    18 hits

    allintitle: nine-things OR 9-things
    32 hits

    allintitle: ten-things OR 10-things
    344 hits

  7. Techs

    I remember when i was working a burger joint at the time i was in high school of keeping 12 orders straight in my head during rush hour continously as i didn’t have time to write them down.

  8. Georg

    @Paul, Malcolm,
    Those numbers found by Paul are not only odd, those are prime numbers!
    Imagine! :=)

  9. Ardy

    Great article, I wish I had time to list the 10 reasons for reading it.

  10. Georg

    Usually there is only one reason to read some article:

    – nothing better to do…..

  11. Archwright

    @Georg. Likewise, the only reason to comment on an article.

  12. Matt

    Didactyl animals would have a top four list (assuming two hands).

  13. Justin

    The binary joke only works if you write “10” not if you write out the word “ten”. The joke is funny because “10” is binary for two. I guess this means you fall in the 10nd group.

  14. I write a blog based on this premise. It started Nov last year, and it’s reasonably popular (at least by my standards. But I’m Canadian).


    I find that it helps to organize my thoughts, and I encourage guestposts from other folks who might not be up for writing essays, but do want to express details of their experiences.

    The thing is, writing ten good and separate things about one experience is actually more difficult than one might think. It’s easy to do…hard to do well (and, for the record, I know I don’t always do it well..!!).

    Thanks for the article, Malcolm.

  15. mrlizard

    Way back when – the Wallechinskys (David, Irving Wallace and Amy Wallace) sold millions of copies of “The Book of Lists”.
    We just love lists. Always have. Always will

  16. Andrew

    Invariably, these top ten lists have separate pages to click through, which means more page loads, and more ad impressions, and thus it is because of money, duh!

  17. Lon Phillips

    Actually, David Letterman does Top Ten lists and have been doing them since he started Late Night. The tradition goes back bunches of years!

  18. Malcolm MacIver

    @Justin – I knew I was missing something. Thanks for that. @Matt – you’re right – thanks for the correction.

    @Lon – yes, we’ve seen “top ten” lists for years. But there seems to be an increase in how often we are seeing them. I haven’t taken a really careful look, but besides the simple google news search I mentioned above, you can see an upward trend in the google news archive. Search for “allintitle: ten-things OR 10-things” (without quotes) here: http://news.google.com/archivesearch. Of course, to be more careful, one would want to normalize by the number of articles per year etc., but it is suggestive that we are going ten-list happy!

  19. David

    I think the reason is more prosaic: most blogging advice out there includes the item ‘write titles that start with # x about y’, because these titles generate more web clicks. I tend to see these titles as evidence of creative laziness, with rare exceptions. great post!

  20. On december 2009 a friend of mine a me invented the “seven items decalogue” that makes “10 thing lists” easier to be made. It’s also called the “mobile decalogue” because his state-of-the-art tecnology makes it posible to use it with 7 to 13 “things”. Is copyleft, so you can use it free.


  21. worldtoptenz

    yes it is easy to understand the top 10 best things
    World Top Tenz

  22. ben

    I would like to challenge the 3rd bullet point.

    Earlier today, I happened across the “Entangled bank” passage, the last paragraph of Darwin’s masterpiece, which was quoted by some other blog for effect.

    The second sentence was a series of independent clauses concatenated with semicolons. I thought to myself, “I wish he would have made this a bulleted list. It would have been easier to follow.”

    But, although that would have taken fewer WORDS, it would have taken more SPACE. That is completely immaterial, or even beneficial, in a hypertext document like a blog post; the only important measurement of “document size” is bytes of information, the number of characters the server has to ship to my computer. But, in a book, “document size” is basically measured by pages. That’s apart from the difference in DISPLAY conditions between a computer screen and a book page.

    Bullet-point lists are optimal to different conditions than large, solid paragraphs with linking sentences.

  23. Matt B.

    I think you meant “hence” rather than “ergo” in #3.

    Don’t forget the original list that came to 10 arbitrarily–the Commandments. Don’t worship other gods and don’t worship idols don’t need to be separate rules. Not to mention two of the rules are Do’s and eight are don’ts. That’s a little weird.

    Oddly, the American Bill of Rights did come to 10 by coincidence, as two of the 12 proposed amendments didn’t pass with the others.


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