Black Mirror Reflects the Psychology of 21st Century Technology

You either have no clue what Black Mirror is or you’re a rabid fan of it.


Black Mirror came out in the U.K. in 2011 and was recently released in the U.S. on Netflix. It’s an anthology series, like The Twilight Zone, with every episode focusing on a unique story and cast. There’re only 7 episodes so you can binge watch it in a day (here’s a guide to do that).

The series explores how technology is changing society. Charlie Brooker, the show’s creator, explained Black Mirror as the reflection “you’ll find on every wall, on every desk, in the palm of every hand: the cold, shiny screen of a TV, a monitor, a smartphone.”

There’s nothing like Black Mirror on TV. It’s the smartest science fiction I’ve seen since Battlestar Galactica’s reboot. It’s also the first show to really get 21st century technology. Check out what Wired had to say:

These episodes don’t scream “TECHNOLOGY IS BAD!!!” They’re not too far removed from contemporary life, and they’re not too familiar, either. Instead, they quietly, diligently burrow into the heart of what’s so terrifying about tech to begin with: our tendency to make stuff that caters to our worst selves. And that, friends, is what dystopian sci-fi is all about.

This is why I’m so obsessed with Black Mirror — it reveals dark truths about human nature and warns us about what might happen if we aren’t careful.

I’m going to expand on that and explore the psychology of Black Mirror. I won’t spoil the episodes — they work best if you go in without knowing what to expect. If you’ve seen the show, you’ll know what I’m talking about. If you haven’t, hopefully this will convince you to give it a try. Just skip episode #1, "The National Anthem", because no one likes it. The rest are awesome though, I promise.

Without eye contact humans become inhumane

Black Mirror - The Waldo Moment

"The Waldo Moment" shows us how easy it is to insult someone when you’re sitting behind a screen. We see the same type of stuff happen with Facebook bullying, Twitter GamerGate death threats, blog post comment flame wars, and Xbox Live hate speech.

What is it about the internet that makes it easy for humans to become inhumane? No eye contact!

Empathy, the ability to understand what other people are thinking and feeling, happens when we see other people. Here’s how it works:

  1. You do something hurtful.
  2. You see that the other person is hurt.
  3. Mirror neurons (empathy brain cells) detect their pain and make you feel bad.
  4. You stop the thing that hurt the other person and (if you’re nice) apologize for your actions.

None of this happens on social media. You don’t see the emotional impact of your actions. Without eye contact, your mirror neurons have nothing to do. No empathy.

You can predict when this is going to happen using my formula for online rage:

(Anger + Anonymity) - Eye Contact = Internet Trolls.

Psychologists have a name for this phenomenon — the nasty effect (a.k.a. the best psychological term EVER).

What’s the solution? I don’t have a good one — it’s very difficult to maintain the privacy of the internet while also promoting empathy. Creating self-governing communities where diversity of thought is rewarded and trolling is penalized is the best option we’ve got (for now).

Agreeing to a small thing makes it easy to agree to a big thing

Black Mirror - Fifteen Million Merits

“Fifteen Million Merits” takes on a lot of topics including reality TV, online avatars, freemuim games, and a little bit of Kickstarter. Dr. Jamie Madigan has covered most these including the psychology of video game avatars, Candy Crush, and Kickstarters.

What I want to highlight is the “foot-in-the-door technique”. It’s an old sales tactic that’s grounded in science. Get people to agree to a small request and they’re more likely to agree to a big request.

Maybe a friend doesn’t have HBO and asks if they can come over to watch Game of Thrones with you. You have fun and it feels good to share the awesomeness of Westeros with them. A few days later, they ask you for your HBO Go password. This is where the foot-in-the-door technique kicks in. You’re more likely to say yes to them because you want to stay true to what you've done in the past. I explore much more about this phenomenon (cognitive dissonance) in in my article on why people deny science and this episode of The Psych Show.

The foot-in-the-door technique is very profitable. President Obama’s 2012 campaign made a lot of money by getting you to open their emails, donate a small amount, and then ask for more money later on. Kickstarters projects succeed because once you’ve donated money you’re more committed to getting others to donate too. After you've invested a lot of time into a free game, spending some money to level up isn’t that big of a deal.

Revisiting memories changes them

Black Mirror - The Entire History of You

What if you had the ability to replay any experience you’ve ever had in your life? That’s the premise behind "The Entire History of You", my favorite Black Mirror episode.

Memories aren’t a perfect recording of what’s happened in the past. Each time we think of something, new information gets combined with old memories. Think of memories like a live concert - the same song always sounds different depending on the venue, how the band is performing that day, and how we feel at the concert. There are infinite ways in which we experience the same memory.

How does this fit in with “The Entire History of You”? Even if you had a perfect recording of what happened in the past, you’d never have a perfect memory. Each time you’d play it back, your experience of that memory would change based upon how you’re feeling, who’s with you, and what’s happened since the recording was made. The more you’d revisit the memory, the more it would change. Certain details would stick out, others would be forgotten, and false memories could easily be created if people lie about what’s happening in the recording.

Relying on recordings also gets in the way of forming memories. That’s why Instagramming every moment of your vacation is a bad idea – you’re not going to be fully aware of what’s happening around you. Practicing mindfulness and taking photos of certain details you really want to remember is a much better approach.

One more thing – obsessing over every detail of everything you’ve recorded, that could lead you to experience a symptom of depression called rumination.

You are what you post online

Black Mirror - Be Right Back

Can you recreate someone based upon their online identity just like “Be Right Back” (and while we’re at Caprica)? Yes, for the most part.

Researching how people use the internet is difficult. Science is slow – research takes a lot of time to develop, get funded, cleared by ethics boards, and analyzed. Meanwhile, technology develops quickly. One day everyone’s talking about Meerkat the next people have moved on to Periscope. But based on what we know now, the way you use the internet is a good reflection of who you are.

The strongest relationship seems to be personality and social media. The updates you post and the things you like are a good reflection of your basic personality – how much you want to be with people, how trusting you are, the stability of your emotions, your ability to organize, and your curiosity. Social media can also predict your gender, religion, sexual orientation, and how much you use drugs based on things like whether or not you like curly fries and thunderstorms.    

While all this stuff is important, there’s much more to you than your personality and demographics. What you've done in the past isn’t always a good predictor of what you’ll do in the future. Your actions are a complicated mess of what you've learned, how you’re feeling, what’s happening around you, and your immediate thoughts. Your internet profile doesn’t have access to all that data, at least not yet.

Here’s how this does impact you right now. Companies are already using Google searches to screen applicants. It probably won’t be too long until your Facebook likes impact your credit score and your tweets influence your health insurance premium. Then there’s the pesky question of who owns your social media after you die...

Being recorded changes your behavior

Black Mirror - White Bear

What happens when people take photographs and videos of you on their smartphones (like "White Bear")? Something called objective self-awareness.

This happens whenever you see your reflection in a mirror, realize you’re being watched in a bank, or see a photo of yourself on social media. You compare how you think of yourself to how you actually are. Most of the time this leads you to change something. Maybe you fix your hair, act more professional, or get stuck thinking about a specific part of your body.

Technology is increasing objective self-awareness and with wearables, drones, and live-broadcasting gaining popularity, things are going to get worse. For more on this topic, check out my video on how technology is turning everyone into a celebrity and the paparazzi

Self-awareness makes artificial intelligence alive

Black Mirror - White Christmas

The most recent episode of Black Mirror, “White Christmas” touches on the ethics of artificial intelligence. It’s a popular topic right now as Her, Chappie, Ex Machina, and the upcoming Avengers: Age of Ultron tackle similar issues.

The big question is this: how will we know if an artificial intelligence is alive? Futurist Martine Rothblatt, a pioneer in the field of cyber consciousness, believes objective self-awareness is the test we’ll use to figure this out (check out her SXSW keynote for more on that). Does the AI understand what it is? Does it value its life? If so, how does it want to live? Like all basic human rights, Rothblatt believes artificial life should have the choice to be in the type of state it wants to be. The problem is as cyber consciousness gets close to human consciousness, it’s going to be very hard to know if the AI is mimicking humans or if it is really alive.

This moment of technological singularity could become the greatest test humanity has ever faced – how will be treat a species that is just as intelligent as us? I’m hoping for more of a Star Trek: The Next Generation outcome and less of a Terminator future.

There’s a lot more I could say about Black Mirror, the psychology of technology, and where we’re headed as a species. But I’ve had my say – what do you think? Are we doomed to live in a dystopian science fiction future or will all this technology usher in an era of peace and prosperity? Let’s discuss in the comments below. 

For more on Black Mirror, check out my review on Super Fantastic Nerd Hour. To detox from all this scifi, watch the hilarious Black Mirror: In Real Life.

Infinite Memories at the Edge of Tomorrow (Non-spoiler film review)

Edge of Tomorrow poster

Edge of Tomorrow is the worst marketed film of the summer. It dropped the source material's awesome name, All You Need Is Kill, and its trailer was super depressing. The only thing the film had going for it was the star power of Emily Blunt (she was great in Looper) and the vision of Doug Liman (loved his Bourne triology).

Then there's the Tom Cruise issue. I grew up on Cruise's films (Top Gun, Mission: Impossible, Minority Report) but it's hard for me to support a guy who outright denies the science of psychology and rejects the treatment of mental illness.

Why did I see Edge of Tomorrow? As I mentioned a few weeks ago, I'm a sucker for time travel paradoxes.

A Surprisingly Fun Film

Emily Blunt uses a scifi sword against an alien in  Edge of Tomorrow.

Emily Blunt uses a scifi sword against an alien in Edge of Tomorrow.

Despite all of that baggage, Edge of Tomorrow works. It’s got a fun déjà vu premise with the main character, Cage, reliving the same day over and over (like Groundhog Day, Star Trek: The Next Generation's "Cause and Effect", and Source Code). What's new is the way events are re-experienced. Things unfold much like a video game. Cage fights aliens, dies, restarts a level, and gets a little bit farther in the battle before dying and respawning again. The action is fun, Blunt’s character kicks a lot of butt, and it’s great to see Cruise play someone who isn't (at least at first) the traditional Cruise action hero. There's also lots of humor sprinkled throughout the film. My only complaints are the film’s boring final boss battle and forgettable score (they should have just used the Halo soundtrack).

How Memory Works

Tom Cruise's Cage begins the film without any knowledge of fighting a war.

Tom Cruise's Cage begins the film without any knowledge of fighting a war.

The psychology of Edge of Tomorrow is also a fun thought experiment. I'm not talking about the exosuits (check out Nerdist for more on that). I was more interested in the film’s depiction of memory. If you accept the premise that someone could re-experience the same events over and over again, how would that impact their memories?

The human memory system is a combination of limited and infinite capacities. When you see or hear something, the details last for a couple of seconds before they fade away. Some call this sensory memory. You can experience this yourself by looking at the words on this screen and then immediately closing your eyes. How long did the image of the screen stay in your mind? Probably less than 2 seconds.

Important information (like hearing your name in a crowded room) gets past sensory memory and enters working memory. We used to call this short-term memory. Working memory is like a desk where new information (like the text on this screen) gets combined with stuff you've learned from the past (things you remember from watching Edge of Tomorrow). Most people can hold 5 - 9 chunks of information in working memory. Stuff that gets practiced (repeating a phone number in your head) or thought about a lot ("I wonder how many times Tom Cruise relived the same day?") moves past working memory and enters long-term memory.

This is where things get interesting. Unlike sensory and working memory, long-term memory has an infinite capacity. It's pretty reliable, but works much better if you're in a situation that's a lot like the one where you originally created the memory. Try thinking of the lyrics to one of your favorite songs right now…it's kind of hard right? But if the accompanying music started playing, the lyrics would rush into your head. Context helps us remember long-term memories.

A great TED talk on how memory works:

Context Improves Memory

Context makes it easier to remember the stuff that's important for right now. We're a lot better at recognizing people, places, and things when we see them in their natural environment. You can easily identify neighbors when you notice them near your home but if you see the same people in another part of town it's much harder to know who they are.

We're also much better at context and recognition than we are at remembering specific events (episodic memories). Go to a dinner party and you'll immediately know if you met someone before but you might not be able to remember their name. Why are we built like this? Evolution decided long ago that it was more important for us to recognize a tiger as a threat than to remember specific details about the animal. Try it for yourself – can you remember what you had for dinner on your last birthday? Probably not. But if I gave you four different options, you'd recognize the correct answer.

Getting back to Edge of Tomorrow, the more Cage relives the same day, the more he begins to remember. New situations become familiar because context helps him remember what's about to happen next (like a secret card game, where an alien is about to strike, or suspicious guards with yellow armbands). The ability to recognize details in contexts becomes Cage’s superpower.

Cage remembers every conversation he has, which could happen after many respawns.

Cage remembers every conversation he has, which could happen after many respawns.

Remember though, both sensory memory and working memory have limited capacities. Even if we relive a day a second time, we wouldn't be able to remember everything because we don’t create memories for everything. A lot of data is lost and only the important stuff gets into long-term memories. From his first respawn, Cage is able to remember everything that was said around him. That's not how memory works! I could imagine him remembering a lot of details after many respawns though. If we do something a bunch of times, it becomes a procedural memory. Memories about riding a bike, playing Super Mario Bros., dialogue from your favorite movie, or commuting to work are all procedural memories. These memories are recalled without any effort and are rarely forgotten, even if you have Alzheimer’s. Most of what Cage does by the end of the film is based on procedural memories (e.g. awesome exoskeleton gymnastics).

Memories are Imperfect Recreations

Since this moment happened so many times, Cage's memories should have started to blend together.

Since this moment happened so many times, Cage's memories should have started to blend together.

There is a problem with a memory system that’s based on context, recognition, and procedures. When we do the same thing a bunch of times, we can start blending different memories together. You might remember Jamie, Adam, and Mariam all coming over to watch a hockey game with you even though Jamie wasn’t actually there. Why the false memory? Because Jamie is usually there. In Edge of Tomorrow, Cage should have confused a bunch of events from his numerous respawns, but that never happens.

Contrary to most Hollywood films, our memories aren't perfect recordings of what happened. Each time we think of something, new information gets combined with old information in working memory. Think of memories like a live concert - the same song always sounds different depending on the venue, how the band is performing that day, and how we feel at the concert. There are infinite ways in which we experience the same memory, depending on the context where’re in and how we’re feeling.

Overall, Edge of Tomorrow tells an entertaining story that gets the psychology of memories mostly right. I probably enjoyed the film, despite my opposition to Cruise’s personal beliefs, because of the context. It’s easy for me to experience the work he does within action films. Outside that role though, it’s hard to recognize who he’s become.

For more on the video game feel of Edge of Tomorrow, check out /Filmcast's discussion of the film. AV Club also has a great review. You can hear me discuss Edge of Tomorrow on this week's Super Fantastic Nerd Hour podcast.

Star Trek Continues is a Nostalgic Return to the Franchise's Social Justice Origins

For the first time, I'm exploring the psychology of a new episode of Star Trek. It might not be canon, but Star Trek Continues feels like the real deal. Not only is this fan-produced web series a nostalgic voyage into The Original Series, but it also returns the franchise to its social justice origins. 

A nostalgic voyage

Chris Doohan, the son of James Doohan, is Chief Engeineer Mr. Scott.

Chris Doohan, the son of James Doohan, is Chief Engeineer Mr. Scott.

The crew has done a brilliant job bringing The Original Series era to life. The writing, sets, costumes, sounds, music, visual effects, and cinematography feel just like a classic episode of Star Trek. While many fan projects have imitated The Original Series, this production feels like it picks up where the original left off.

A big part of that comes from the quality of the cast. Not only are they experienced actors, but they all share a deep love of the source material (watch them geek out on their Kickstarter video). Vic Mignogna leads the crew, both on and off screen, as Captain James T. Kirk and Executive Producer. Everyone loves to parody William Shatner's over the top moments as Kirk, but Mignogna's version reminds us that Kirk was also a tender and introspective man. Don't worry, Mignogna still whips out the trusty Starfleet clenched fist uppercut when needed.

Watching the first episode of Star Trek Continues, “Pilgrim of Eternity”, generated a lot of nostalgia for me. The episode is a faithful sequel to "Who Mourns for Adonais?" (The Original Series episode where the Enterprise meets the Greek god Apollo). It reminded me of how much fun I had watching The Original Series for the first time and the endless debates I had with my brother about the decisions Kirk made. We know nostalgia lifts our mood, reminds us of important social relationships from our past, and makes us want to connect with our loved ones in the present. That's exactly how I felt after watching Star Trek Continues – I was super excited to talk about the episode with all my Trekkie friends. 

A return to social justice

The second episode of  Star Trek Continues  focuses on Lolani, a victim of the Orion slave trade.

The second episode of Star Trek Continues focuses on Lolani, a victim of the Orion slave trade.

The second episode, "Lolani", dives deeper into what made The Original Series so important – social justice. The episode focuses on the story of Lolani, a female Orion slave who seeks refuge on the Enterprise. I won't spoil what happens next, but I will say Kirk has to choose between his morals and his oath to the Federation. It's a captivating episode, but more importantly "Lolani" brings attention to the issue of modern day slavery. 

Around the world, there’re 12.3 million children and adults in forced labor or prostitution. About 56% of these human trafficking cases are girls and women. Like Lolani, many victims of trafficking experience life-threatening physical and sexual abuse. Despite the gravity of this issue and it's global condemnation, human trafficking persists and is rarely discussed in media. That's probably why the American Psychological Association recently concluded that little is known about individuals who're involved in trafficking humans and major research is needed to understand how we can solve this problem.

The Original Series's  "Let That Be Your Last Battlefield"

The Original Series's "Let That Be Your Last Battlefield"

This type of social justice, bringing attention to inequality that is ignored by media, is a hallmark of the original Star Trek series. It was the first TV show to feature a multicultural cast, women in power, and had the first interracial kiss. The infamous "Let That Be Your Last Battlefield", an episode about half-white/half-black aliens committed to destroying each other, is widely panned for being too obvious in its message. What everyone misses about this episode is that it’s not about social commentary – it's social justice. Check out what the Mission Log podcast had to say about it (Supplemental episode 12 at 58:55):

Ken Ray: "Anybody who thinks that 'Let That Be Your Last Battlefield' is a bad episode is drinking too much…or not enough."

Rod Roddenberry: "…they hit the nail on the head but that was perfect for the era it was out."

John Champion: "We got a great email from a listener saying this is a great example of Star Trek moving into the point of storytelling as advocacy. Instead of just saying 'oh hey look here is this interesting problem' here's a story that's saying 'no you are dumb if you will destroy yourself by these petty racially motivated violences that you carry out on each other."

Like "Let That Be Your Last Battlefield", "Lolani" puts a face on an important issue and forces us to consider what happens if we ignore our conscience and let the injustice of human trafficking continue.

The psychological impact of human trafficking

Star Trek Continues Lolani Mind Meld

During my time at New York's Bellevue Hospital Center, I worked with a lot of trafficked individuals in the emergency room after they escaped captivity. Most were female, always on guard, and didn't want to talk about what happened while they were in captivity. This type of hypervigilance and avoidance are common symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

"Lolani" does a good job showing us these two symptoms of trauma. However, the ship's psychologist walks into a scientific minefield when conceptualizing her patient:

Dr. Elise MacKennah: "It's not uncommon for someone whose been traumatized to block out memories that are just too painful. It's entirely possible she's simply not conscious of everything that's happened."

The idea that traumatic memories could be forgotten for long periods of time and recovered later in therapy (or through a mind meld) led to a decade of "memory wars" in the 1990s. Cognitive psychologists showed that many people can “remember” doing something that never actually happened. On the other hand, clinical psychologists pointed to many cases in which recovered memories were backed up by police evidence. The issue is still controversial, but most psychologists would now conceptualize Lolani as avoiding her traumatic memories, not repressing them.

Despite my psychological nitpick, I'm still a huge fan of this project. Unlike the recent Star Trek films that retain the spirit of The Original Series but make significant departures in tone and style, Star Trek Continues faithfully restarts the original 5-year mission of the U.S.S. Enterprise. I hope they continue to revisit iconic characters, promote social justice (awesome job with the female redshirts, now please give us a LGBT character), and boldly go where fan-production has gone before.

Music is a Social, Mood Altering, Time Machine

"My name is Darth Vader. I am an extraterrestrial from the planet Vulcan!" -  Back to the Future    

"My name is Darth Vader. I am an extraterrestrial from the planet Vulcan!" - Back to the Future

A few weeks ago, my friends and I were wandering through 6th Street in Austin, Texas when we heard a band covering Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" in a nearby bar. "They sound perfect, like Kurt Cobain reincarnated or something" my buddy said. The group was called Nothing Left Austin. They didn't just sing some of the best music from the 90s, they became the bands they were covering, both in sound and style. We stayed at that bar until the end of the set list and went to all of their shows that weekend.

Nothing Left transported me back to my adolescence. Listening to them reminded me of what it was like to discover Green Day's Dookie for the first time, being totally fascinated by the music video for The Smashing Pumpkins's "Tonight Tonight", and all the times I played Radiohead's "Creep" when I thought I was a loser. I felt younger, more invigorated, less inhibited. It was like time travel. 

I wanted to see if others had experienced anything like this. So I did what any good psychologist would do—consult the scientific literature. Here's what I learned about the psychology of music.  

1) Syncing us together.

Listening to Nothing Left Austin brought me closer to my friends.

Listening to Nothing Left Austin brought me closer to my friends.

We still don't know what advantage the ability to hear pitch, rhythm, and timbre gives us as a species. But I really like the conclusions of Aniruddh D. Patel's research on the neuropsychology of music. Patel studied how humans and animals synchronize with musical beats through head bobbing, foot tapping, and dancing. It turns out not only is this an incredibly complex process which integrates auditory, vocal, visual, and movement regions of the brain, but it's also very rare—besides humans, some birds, whales, dolphins, and seals, no other animal on the planet can sync to music. According to Patel, music helps us connect with each other:  

“Somehow moving in time with other people to a common beat blurs the line between self and other and makes you more likely to be cooperative or pro-socially oriented toward the person outside of a musical context.”

This was definitely my experience listening to Nothing Left. I remember all of us singing along to Foo Fighter's "Learn to Fly". I felt closer to my friends, other random folks dancing along, and the band itself.

2) Working like language. 

No Doubt crams a lot of expression into their music. 

No Doubt crams a lot of expression into their music. 

One of Patel's first experiments concluded that the brain responds to music similar to how it hears spoken language. Both language and music use sounds to help us be social, so some similarity in brain functioning makes sense. Music also has a major role in helping us to remember and teach information (e.g. the alphabet song), just like language.

Five-time Grammy winner Victor Wooten summarizes this nicely in his TED ED video below. 

Wooten states:

"[Music] serves the same purpose [as language]. It's a form of expression. A way for me to express myself, convey feelings, and sometimes it actually works better than a written or verbal language."

A great example of this is "Don't Speak" by No Doubt. Lead singer Gwen Stefani wrote the song shortly after a breakup with her ex-boyfriend (and band mate). The music quickly communicates the shock, sadness, and anger of being dumped better than language alone.  

3) Changing how we feel. 

My gym playlist always gets me psyched for my workouts.

My gym playlist always gets me psyched for my workouts.

The human brain really likes music. When we listen to our favorite songs, the brain releases dopamine (the neurotransmitter linked to reward and pleasure) right before our favorite parts (e.g. 1 minute and 50 seconds into Oasis's "Wonderwall"). This is rare—the release of dopamine is primarily reserved for important things related to our survival (like food and sex).

Music is also linked to specific emotions. We've all experienced this. Every time I hear Jewel's "Foolish Games" I get a crushing feeling of isolation and anger while The Rembrandts' "I'll Be There For You" just puts a smile on my face. Daniel Levitin believes “[music] is a regulating force for our moods” and can be used to energize us in the morning, relax us at night, and give us a kick in the butt when we need extra motivation. The same is true of violent music, which increases our aggressive thoughts and feelings.

4) Taking us back in time.

Watching Third Eye Blind in 2000, my first big concert.

Watching Third Eye Blind in 2000, my first big concert.

Important music from our lives can take us back in time by activating key memories, especially if they're strong emotional memories. Whenever I hear Third Eye Blind's "Semi-Charmed Life" I vividly remember the excitement and anxiety I had the summer before starting high school. Music often makes us feel nostalgia. Listening to Nothing Left, I remembered what it was like to be a teenager, both the freedom from responsibilities and the excitement about an unwritten future.  

5) Part of our identities.

Karaoke is one way I express my passion for music.

Karaoke is one way I express my passion for music.

Music is a big part of who we are. The type of music we like matches our personalities. Our musical taste becomes another form of expression, just like our clothes and hairstyles. 

My favorite type of music is reflective and personal. It's not just stuff from my adolescence like Collective Soul or Pearl Jam. I'm drawn to classics like Johnny Cash, The Beatles, Bob Dylan, and Fleetwood Mac for the same reason I love indie rock bands like Arcade Fire, Death Cab for Cutie, and The Decemberists—each tell great stories about incredibly emotional experiences.   

How has music impacted your life? Have you ever had a moving experience at a concert? Do you use music to change how you feel?

2 Reasons Why We Love Top 10 Lists

Chances are you've come across a lot of 2012 "top 10" lists this past week. Some of my favorites include io9's best and worst scifi and fantasy movies of 2012, Tor's 10 essential genre films of 2012, and Popular Science's sloppiest sci-fi movie science violations of 2012.

Why are these types of articles so popular? Here are two explanations from cognitive psychology.

1. Top 10 lists make information easier to digest

A top 10 list lets the reader know what to expect and makes the article easier to understand. This is known in psychology as perceptual fluency, or how easy it is to understand information. 

A great example of perceptual fluency comes from Daniel Oppenheimer's 2005 experiment on the perception of papers with different levels of complexity. Participants in this study rated simpler writing (more perceptual fluency) as written by more intelligent writers.

Oppenheimer provides a great summary of his study here:

"It's important to point out that this research is not about problems with using long words but about using long words needlessly…Anything that makes a text hard to read and understand, such as unnecessarily long words or complicated fonts, will lower readers' evaluations of the text and its author..."

Top 10 lists don't guarantee simple writing, but they do provide a familiar way of organizing and communicating ideas that often results in easy to digest articles.

2. Top 10 lists are easier to remember.

Grouping information in a meaningful way is called chunking. For example, the numbers 1, 7, 7, and 6 can be chunked into 1776 (the year America declared independence from England). Chunked information is easier to remember (e.g. 1776 versus 1, 7, 7, 6). Top 10 lists often combine information into chunks around a subject like "best scifi movies" or "coolest time-travel episodes".

The number of items on top 10 lists also makes a difference. George A. Miller famously stated in a legendary 1956 article that the capacity of our working memory is the "magical number" 7, plus or minus two. In other words, we have the ability to hold and manipulate 5-9 chunks of information at a time. This places top 10 lists almost within the limits of our working memory.

While recent research has questioned whether 7 ± 2 is an accurate limit (some suggest the true "magical number" is 4 ± 2), new mathematical models from neuroscience help us understand why our working memory has any limits at all. With each additional chunk we try to remember, our neurons work exponential harder to hold on to each piece of information. Very quickly, we run into the biological limits of what our brains can handle.

Bottom line, a top 10 structure helps readers enjoy articles by simplifying messages and limiting them to just a few points. Writers have known about these cognitive guidelines for a long time. As Albert Camus said, "Those who write clearly have readers; those who write obscurely have commentators” (something I remind myself when my articles fail to receive comments).