Why do we make Top Ten lists?

I just looked at Wall Street Journal‘s list of Most-Read Stories of 2009 (I recognize at least one or two in each category except Markets). I also enjoyed their The Year in Photos. Worldmag.com has a list of 20 most read articles on their website, and as always their final issue of the magazine for the year features an overview of top news stories from the past year. National Geographic has Top Ten Photo Galleries of the year. There must be thousands of such lists (millions maybe).

What is it about the end of a year that makes people want to make – or read – these lists? One easy – and perhaps cynical – answer is that it’s easier than coming up with new material. Just look through a year’s worth of material that’s already there, pick out the best, and put together a list. Voilà! People will flock to read your list, and to tell you what you should have added or left out.

This blog post suggests that top ten lists are so popular because

  • Thinking is hard, and just reading someone else’s bulleted list of opinions is easy.
  • Lists give us the illusion of control.

While those points may be true, I think the widespread urge to use lists reflects our innate tendency to look for order. Christians will see this as one way we reflect the image of God, who created not only the physical universe but the rules of physics that govern it. Evolutionary biologists will point to how our ability to see patterns developed as a way to help us survive. (And Christians who are evolutionary biologists can affirm both statements.)

The designation of the last 365 days as the year 2009 is somewhat arbitrary (I’ve posted previously about the fascinating study of the history of the calendar). It would be just as meaningful to make a list of top ten stories from the past 500 days – but the calendar does provide a convenient framework. As the top stories of the past year are still too recent for us to know which are truly significant in the long term, compiling the top stories of the decade might be a more worthwhile venture. And I’m sure such lists will be appearing soon, if they haven’t already.

Lists of events from the past year give us a chance to reflect together over our shared experience – even if our involvement was no deeper than reading about what happened in the news.  It informs us of stories we might have missed, when personal events were focussing our attention elsewhere. Disagreements over what stories were really the most important makes us work at formulating what we consider important and why.

These annual lists also reflect people’s need to mark times and seasons. In most cultures, religion has traditionally provided the timing and structure of celebrations and rituals that mark milestones in our lives as individuals and as communities. But people who have left organized religion still find a need for such observances, and will often fashion new ones to replace those too imbued with superstition for their taste.

According to Umberto Eco, lists are “a way of escaping thoughts about death. ” I’m not sure I follow his reasoning in that regard, but thoughts of death certainly do motivate some kinds of lists. There is the “bucket list” – based on the movie by that name (which was on a list of top ten films in 2007, by the way), a list of things people wish to do before they “kick the bucket.” There are lists of places to see before you die, books to read before you die, and music to hear before you die.

I suppose one reason people compile lists of “top 10 ____ of 2009” is just to celebrate the fact of having lived to see yet another year.

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2 Responses to Why do we make Top Ten lists?

  1. Peter L says:

    My question is why only top 10? Why not 9 or 7? Is it perhaps the fact that God gave us 10 Commandments? Or is it that the original list makers were OCD and preferred the numbers that end in a zero (like the TV detective “Monk”)?

  2. Karen O says:

    Well, we do have a base 10 number system. (That’s what it’s called, right?)

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