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Why do odd-numbered lists work so well?

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Why do odd-numbered lists work so well?

From a mathematical perspective, our brains like to process information in nice round numbers, and this theory is often the basis on which lists are presented to us. Think of the top 10 or top 40 in the music charts, or the bigger but still mathematically satisfying numbers used by the likes of the Fortune 500 list.

Lists, however, have really come into their own as the internet has grown, and people love the fast-paced, easily sharable nature of a good rundown on a given theme. They tend to be written in a punchy style, and are often a tool to help a little content go a long way.

One point you certainly notice by visiting popular list websites like Buzzfeed and Cracked is that a lot of the articles on them consist more of images than text, but another curiosity is that they tend to ditch the obvious method of selecting 5, 10 or 20 examples of something and go for much more arbitrary ones.

For example, here are three consecutive articles that were published on Buzzfeed last Friday afternoon:

Buzzfeed

So why is Buzzfeed going for numbers like 21, 19 and 36? What’s wrong with good old reliable fives and zeros?

As was mentioned by Hana Bednarova from Tecmark at last month’s SAScon event, odd-numbered list articles tend to get more traffic and engagement than even-numbered ones. This is not just an opinion, but a theory backed up by statistics.

But why is this? Numerologists might point out that people tend to have special relationships with certain numbers, such as the number seven. Studies have shown that if we’re asked to pick a random number between one and ten, seven will be chosen far more often than any other number. There’s something about seven that seems more ‘random’ than any other single digit number, seeing as it’s odd, prime and reasonably large.

Others argue that we actually remember items in a list better if they are one of a peculiar number. Round numbers, though convenient, are boring, whereas odd numbers stand out. They therefore bring the actual quantity and ordinance of the items to our attention.

As a writer, it can be hard to get used to this arbitrary idea, because we still have a mathematical approach to idea generation. We say to each other “think of about 10 ideas” rather than “about 13”.

However, the advantage is that if you’ve thought of nine and are struggling to come up with another one, don’t bother! You can just leave it at nine, and benefit from odd-number psychology.

John Murray

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