5 Reasons Listicles are Bad For You: So Stop Reading Them!

Ryan Dube 09-06-2015

Lots of people think that the pile of brain-numbing lists on sites like Buzzfeed Why Buzzfeed's Business Model is Doomed to Fail BuzzFeed's really popular now, but their business model ensures no one will trust or like them in the long term. Read More is the opening bell of a new era of listicles. I’m here to tell you, that’s nonsense. I’m going to help you understand the dangers of listicles for your brain, and how you can and should avoid them.


“5 Ways to Know If He’s Cheating On You”

“7 Great Crock Pot Recipes Using Only 3 Ingredients”

“6 Awesome iOS Apps You Can Buy For Under 3 Dollars”

People certainly like articles like these, but it’s nonsense that it’s anything new or novel. What isn’t nonsense is that the proliferation of these lists — which used to be limited to the covers of glossy magazines in the grocery store — are dumbing down society.

What’s a Listicle?

A listicle is easily identified by some number of things mentioned in the title, and most paragraphs in the article start with a number.



Listicles are usually titled (depending on the site) to be provocative What Is The Worst Clickbait You Have Ever Seen? [We Ask You] It's time for us to take a stand. It's time to share examples of clickbait with each other. For all our sakes. Read More and tempting enough — like a Boston Cream donut that you know will make you fat if you eat it — to get you to click.

Once you make the choice to “consume” that junk food for the brain, that’s when the bad stuff starts happening.

Why Listicles Are Bad For You

You may not realize it, but consuming too many of these kinds of articles while you’re surfing the Internet is actually bad for your brain, and for your life in general. Since you’re probably here because you’re addicted to listicles, I’m going to make this article a listicle to help your brain out. May this be your one, last listicle ever.


1. Listicles May Lead to an Unhealthy Brain

The worst danger that listicles pose is to your brain. They do all of the mental heavy lifting, so you don’t have to. This may sound like a good thing, but it could actually lead to earlier cognitive decline.

If you don’t exercise your brain 5 Things You Can Do in 5 Minutes to Exercise Your Brain Keeping your brain in top shape requires that you challenge it on a regular basis. Surprisingly, you can do a lot in five minutes. Here are five things you can do for your mental fitness. Read More during the limited time you do have during the day, instead of being a beefed-up cognitive powerhouse, your brain could end up looking like this by the time you’re 40 or 50.


Yeah…you’re probably not going to be doing too much mental heavy lifting at that point.


Is there a scientific basis for this? There sure is. According to Dr. Amir Soas of Case Western Reserve University Medical School, reading is a key component to staving off cognitive decline as you age.

“Read, read, read. Anything that stimulates the brain to think.”

He also advises against watching too much television, because “your brain goes into neutral.”

And guess what listicles make your brain do? They make our brain go into neutral. This was well described in a New Yorker article that dove into why the human brain prefers list articles so much. It describes them as:

“…[an] easy reading experience, in which the mental heavy lifting of conceptualization, categorization, and analysis is completed well in advance of actual consumption — a bit like sipping green juice instead of munching on a bundle of kale. And there’s little that our brains crave more than effortlessly acquired data.”

It’s when you regularly find that you’re spending more time reading listicles than you are reading informative, interested brain-food, that you need to start worrying about your long term cognitive health.


2. Listicles Don’t Actually Help You Learn Anything

Another problem with listicles is that they usually only touch on the surface of any topic. They categorize everything into a neat little buffet of bite-sized pieces so your brain doesn’t have to work too hard.


This can be wonderfully entertaining, but is it good for you? Because no matter what, most typical Buzzfeed-style list articles only provide a surface level overview of any topic.

Back to the psychology of lists article from the New Yorker:

“Faced with a detailed discussion of policies toward China or five insane buildings under construction in Shanghai, we tend to choose the latter bite-sized option, even when we know we will not be entirely satisfied by it.”

It’s like opting to stop off at McDonald’s for a quick Big Mac, rather than investing the time into cooking yourself a full, nutritious meal. In the end, your stomach is full, but your body is still unsatisfied — it needs more nutrition.

When you just preview lists, you’ll never deeply understand the topics you’re interested in.

Take weight-loss for example Shed The Pounds: Subscribe To These 4 Weight Loss Subreddits Have you made a resolution to lose a bit of weight? Reddit is a great resource for this, with plenty of subreddits for those eager to reach a healthier weight. Read More . A list article may tell you that the 8 best ways to lose weight is through diet, exercise, getting better sleep, reducing stress, drinking more water, taking supplements, tracking our progress and making all of that a part of your daily lifestyle — but how does that help you with strategies to actually accomplish each of those things?


That’s the difference. A list article tells you a whole lot of things you already know, all packaged up so you can read it, nod your head in agreement and feel good about yourself because you think that’ll help you actually remember to do each of those things.

But without substance — without the guidance of solid advice and thorough tips — those articles do nothing to help you, because your brain has hardly even budged from its former position of complacency with your weight. If you can’t even build up the motivation to read something that makes your brain have to think, what makes you believe you’ll be able to build up the motivation to exercise?

3. They Can Make You a Bad Writer

One of the worst side-effects of reading too many listicles is that they’ll actually turn you into a bad writer.

In his book On Writing, Stephen King explained that the single most effective way to become a better writer 6 Great Apps To Improve a Writer's Creativity Creativity is fickle. Sometimes you're on a roll, with new ideas spawning left and right, while other times you're stuffing your face into a pillow, screaming because your brain has been wrung dry. It may... Read More , is to read.

“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.”

This is important for anyone who has to do any kind of writing in their job or hobby. At work, you probably write a lot of emails, job descriptions, how-to instructions for co-workers or other correspondence. When you write well, you are viewed as more intelligent, and more professional.


So what happens when you read too many listicles all the time? You tend to copy what you read.

Scholastic describes this in terms of children’s development as follows:

“Research shows that children who reach school age with smaller vocabularies, less depth in prior knowledge and background experiences, and fewer experiences with hearing stories and exploring with print are more likely to have significant problems in learning to read.”

This extends into adulthood. You grow to become a good writer by reading good writing. If you mostly read listicles that barely touch the surface of any topic, your own writing will start gravitating in the same direction, without any real substance.

4. They Are Harmony Squirted into Yogurt Cups

The human mind may crave things that don’t require cognitive effort, but it thrives off things that do. Just consider the last time you listened to an orchestra, watched theater or listened to an especially thought-provoking speech.

Something interesting What Is ASMR? 10 YouTube Videos That Will Give You Shivers ASMR is defined as a pleasurable feeling triggered by certain kinds of unique stimuli. Use these YouTube videos to see if you have ASMR! Read More happens. Your mind begins to make new neural connections as you focus your energy on expanding your knowledge based on what you’re experiencing.


Eric Schwitzgebel, Professor of Philosophy at University of California said it best on his blog when he wrote:

“The human mind naturally aspires to unifying harmonies that the listicle instead squirts into yogurt cups.”

The real question is whether you’re going to feed your mind the empty and insubstantial cravings it desires – the things that will make it fat and lazy — or will you feed your mind things that help you become the things you aspire to.

Bypass the yogurt cups, and instead dig into the symphonic harmony you’ll find in the deep and intriguing writing all across the web 8 Great Places To Find Articles Worth Reading On The Web The Internet is arguably the best news morgue on the planet right now. And apart from that great collection of old articles, thousands of new ones are added every day. Find the good ones. Read More . Dig deep, and learn something meaningful every day.

5. You Are Proving You’re Just One of the Sheeple

Finally, even if none of these other things matter to you and you feel like you still want to gorge on your feast of listicles every day, that’s fine — but remember, it also means that you’re just another mindless drone doing what everyone is doing.

How does it feel to know that your behavior is so predictable? Statistically speaking, you’re no different than the masses who also automatically respond to list titles like robots.


Or are you? Have you ever stopped to think why so many people mindlessly respond to certain patterns? And those patterns are weird!

For example, according to researcher and author Gilad Lotan, more people respond to odd numbered lists over even numbered. More people click on Tweets and Facebook shared titles that include numbers.

Most marketers Avoid Sneaky Online Marketing Scams By Popular Websites! You know that feeling when you are fooled into clicking on something on a website that you didn't intend to click on? Maybe it was an order screen that fooled you into paying for extra... Read More are aware of these trends, and they use that information to entice you into putting your eyeballs where they want you to put them. Why not break out of the mold? Be unique, and stop clicking on those listicles like all of the other sheeple do. Give your mind something healthier to chew on!

How do you feel about listicles? Do you love to hate them, or hate that you love them? Share your thoughts, and some ideas how we can all break out of this terrible addiction.

Image Credit: Pavel L Photo and Video /, JSlavy via Shutterstock, Tsyhunvia Shutterstock, marekuliasz via Shutterstock,Dalibor Sevaljevic via Shutterstock txking via Shutterstock, Emka74 /

Related topics: Habits, Reading.

Affiliate Disclosure: By buying the products we recommend, you help keep the site alive. Read more.

Whatsapp Pinterest

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  1. Anonymous
    June 10, 2015 at 5:03 pm

    Symphonies are listicles in the form of the symphony's movements. Also I learn tons of stuff from them. It makes what I've learned from reading them easier to remember when the list's topic comes up in conversation.

  2. Anonymous
    June 10, 2015 at 9:48 am

    Good point Simen. Click the author's name at the top of the article and check out the list of his latest articles. After all the Buzzfeed / "listicle" hate, seeing "4 Common Myths You’ll Be Surprised to Know Are False" put a smile on my face :-)

    The "listicle" criticism seems pretty superficial to me. If we removed from the number 5 from the title of this article and didn't number each point, would the article instantly become deeper and more mentally-stimulating? No? So does this article (or any other that presents a list of points / recommendations / whatever, numbered or otherwise) inherently lack value?

    It's a pretty standard approach to writing an article, essay etc to break an argument down into a number of points. It's nothing new and I'm not sure it's ever been good advice to intentionally make your writing harder to digest for the sake of making it more intellectually stimulating. The content itself should be responsible for that.

    • Dave Parrack
      June 10, 2015 at 11:47 am

      There is some irony involved here. I mean, this diatribe against listicles is itself presented in the form of a list, entirely intentionally, I should add.

      I agree with your wider point though that there is nothing inherently wrong with the list format. It's all about the content being presented in that way. There is a lot more value in "6 Tips for Rebooting Windows Like a Pro" than "6 Ways In Which Justin Bieber Wins At Life".

      • Anonymous
        June 10, 2015 at 12:32 pm

        Dave, can you link the Bieber article? I don't see it on MUO but it sounds awesome ;-) And don't worry - the irony wasn't lost on me (or anyone else I suspect!).

    • Ryan Dube
      June 10, 2015 at 12:01 pm

      Sam, to make your point, you focused on only one of the three criteria I used to identify listicles that are bad for the brain. A numbered title was only the first (plenty of articles have numbered titles, that doesn't make them bad!)

      The other two criteria I listed are clickbait titles, and every paragraph (usually short and superficial) starting with a number.

      All three define the listicle I am referring to. If you can find anything I've written for MUO that matches all three feel free to laugh it up. Good luck.

      • Anonymous
        June 10, 2015 at 12:36 pm

        Two out of three actually, though I'd argue that those two are much the same thing really. Do we know who coined the term? It sounds a bit too close to testicle for my liking, but maybe that's the point.

  3. Anonymous
    June 9, 2015 at 11:04 pm

    Listicles are only the latest symptom of the TL;DR disease. Over the past three or four decades we have decreased the amount of our attention we are willing to give anything. We get our news in sound bites. Our opinions are supplied pre-digested by pundits and commentators. We text in text-speak rather than full words. Twitter is replacing email which replaced phone conversations. Letter writing has gone the way of the dodo. Everybody wants instant gratification. Even TL;DR is a shortened form, somehow the "N" for "not" was dropped.

    • Anonymous
      June 10, 2015 at 5:06 pm

      Attention span may be less for our own good. That is there is so much good stuff vying for our attention, we don't have time for something that doesn't immediately prove it's worth. Why should we spend time on something that might not be worthwhile when we can turn our attention to something else, say another list, that is worthwhile. There is some luddite sentiments in this article.

      • Anonymous
        June 12, 2015 at 1:40 pm

        "Why should we spend time on something that might not be worthwhile"
        Don't you need to spend time on something to determine whether it is or isn't worthwhile? Or are you one of those that determines the value of a book by reading its title?

      • Ryan Dube
        June 12, 2015 at 2:07 pm

        Ha...yes this luddite just saw your comment with smartphone #1 and answered it with smartphone #2. Although I do agree, the onus is on a good writer to convince you the non-listicle is worth reading in the first 10 seconds or less. Thank you for taking the time to make it to the bottom of this article to comment btw. :-)

  4. Ryan Dube
    June 9, 2015 at 9:29 pm

    Great feedback. We just have to get people clicking on non-listicles more first. :-)

  5. Anonymous
    June 9, 2015 at 8:59 pm

    Just a thought: if listicles are bad, maybe it's a good idea to reconsider how many of them you post here on MUO? Over ¼ of the articles on the front page right now have titles like "5 apps your teenager has installed". Of course, some topics are best presented as lists, but I think many of them would work just as good (or better) if they were presented as proper articles.

    • Anonymous
      June 10, 2015 at 6:18 am

      Agreed, it seems like most of makeuseof is click-bait these days with the titles sometimes poorly reflecting the content of the article. I understand that it's a business and you need to draw people in to make money but there are many other tech sites out there who seem to manage fine without the need to lower themselves to "glossy magazine" style tactics

      • Dave Parrack
        June 10, 2015 at 11:44 am

        Simen, we try to offer a range of different content to suit all tastes. And some articles work better in a list format.

        Alex, we don't employ clickbait tactics. Plus, that's a different issue entirely from the value of listicles.