Defensive Reading

Image of wintering lifeguard stations: iStockphoto - NCook
Image of wintering lifeguard stations: iStockphoto – NCook

By Porter Ander­son | @Porter_Anderson

Writing on the Ether: Defensive Reading

[su_dropcap size=”4″]W[/su_dropcap]ithin the context of a Web page or Facebook stream, with their many choices, a list is the easy pick, in part because it promises a definite ending: we think we know what we’re in for, and the certainty is both alluring and reassuring.

Maria Konnikova

Maria Konnikova

That’s Maria Konnikova, author of Mastermind: How To Think Like Sherlock Holmes.

In A List of Reasons Why Our Brains Love Lists at the New Yorker, she sorts through various points of research and observation to explain—very ably, I think—why these sometimes maddening list-headlines are so prevalent, especially in the work of writers blogging for other writers.

For me, the most compelling case she makes is for what we might call defensive reading. I made that up, mind you, don’t blame it on Konnikova. But here’s what she means:

The more we know about something—including precisely how much time it will consume—the greater the chance we will commit to it. The process is self-reinforcing: we recall with pleasure that we were able to complete the task (of reading the article) instead of leaving it undone and that satisfaction, in turn, makes us more likely to click on lists again—even ones we hate-read.

Mastermind How To Think Like Sherlock Holmes by @MariaKonnikovaIf we’re trying to defend our time (and God knows we are), we choose the apparent safety of a list to read.

Konnikova does caution that “Once our attention has been ensnared, we still need to be sufficiently intrigued to read the story.”

And she cites material from the University of Athens, 2009, in which researchers “found that people preferred headlines that were both creative and uninformative, like ‘THE SMELL OF CORRUPTION, THE SCENT OF TRUTH’ or ‘FACE TO FAITH.’ They not only rated them as more interesting over-all but also indicated that they would be more likely to read the corresponding stories.”

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