Why do we like making year-end lists?
Hopes&Fears turned to experts in psychology, linguistics and criticism for a closer look at the year-end list ritual’s appeal.
If you spent from January to November living under a rock, then you’ve emerged at the right moment to sample the best – and worst – the year had to offer. Each December, critics organize the past year into endless lists, ranking the top movies, albums, podcasts, books and more. Every facet of popular culture, from book cover design to journalism, is organized in this winter ritual. Year-end lists have also recently moved into the realm of big data: Facebook, Google and Twitter recently announced 2015’s most talked-about topics.
But list-making isn’t just a pop-culture phenomenon. Year-end lists are made at home by everyone from little kids writing letters to Santa Claus to parents sending out holiday cards. Hopes&Fears turned to experts in psychology, linguistics and criticism for a closer look at the ritual’s appeal.
Susan A. Gelman, Ph.D.
Professor of Psychology and Linguistics at University of Michigan; director of the Conceptual Development Lab
Year-end lists may seem like the privilege of expert taste purveyors. Only a true connoisseur, an educated palate, has the authority to reveal the top 10 films, books, or albums of the year. But as a developmental psychologist who studies the thoughts and language of small children, I have a different perspective on this annual ritual. I am reminded when reading these lists, that humans of every age have a passion to organize. In a sense, the end-of-year list-maker is a grown-up version of the toddler who lines up his toy cars into neatly arranged rows for no reason other than that it is satisfying to make order out of chaos.
A passion for pigeonholing is evident in the actions of the museum curator, the stamp-collector, or the human child—who collects words the way a hoarder collects newspapers (9 new words a day, every day, from 18 months to 6 years of age). End-of-year lists epitomize this very human tendency: we order time by arbitrarily marking December 31st as the end of the year, and we order experience by forming tidy lists of good to best. Ultimately, year-end lists are one more manifestation of our deep urge to impose order on experience.
But sorting out movies and albums does more than impose order on material goods; it also imposes order on the social world. By proclaiming which items are the year’s best, we ultimately are categorizing ourselves. Our choices reveal the kind of person we are—or, at least, the kind of person we hope to be. Am I edgy or conservative? Hip or sensible? Discerning or “regular folk”? Check out my top-10 list of artists of 2015, and you can find out.
Joseph R. Ferrari, Ph.D.
Professor of Psychology at DePaul University; author of Still Procrastinating: The No Regrets Guide to Getting It Done
At the end of the year, people reflect on their lives. We're pensive. Where have I been? Where am I going? What am I doing, and what's the future going to be?
Lots of people of my generation send out an annual holiday card, in which we put a letter that is, in essence, a year in review. We do that because we like to share what we've done, and we look forward to learning what our family and friends have done. We like to think back on where we've been so it helps us psychologically know where we want to go. I would like to think that’s what people are using it for.
It can be painful to reflect on the challenges that you had or the failures of the past. Some people spend their energy and time creating lists in order to avoid taking action. For other people, the list becomes so long that it frightens them, or feels insurmountable for the next year. But a list can also be a celebration of where you’re going. It’s a healthy thing to take stock. So make your list, but don’t get obsessed. Make sure you focus on the good things that you’ve done.
Carrie Barron, M.D.
Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Columbia University Center for Psychoanalytic Training and Research; author of The Creativity Cure: How to Build Happiness with Your Own Two Hands
Why do we make year-end lists or want to read those made by others? There is something psychologically satisfying in the process. Four main needs are met when we make a year-end list: catch-up, containment, crafting and creating ritual. The New Year evokes visceral feelings, both positive and negative, about time passing. Year-end lists are a way to manage the psychology of the experience.
Catch up: Since we don’t want to miss out on notables, it is great to be able to recoup. Fill in the gap, complete the experience, expand horizons or organize pleasures. These actions offer a positive sense of control. Viewing the recommendations of those we respect facilitates quick catch-up, on-track feeling and moving forward with a sense of “done” and “will do!”
Containment: List-making calms the mind. The inner swirl of desires, goals, choices and concerns can be overwhelming. A discrete plan culled from trusted advisors relieves anxiety and sparks motivation. Endless possibility transformed into clear intent feels good. Creating our personal list of cultural to-dos evokes a sense of containment and joyful anticipation. Also, we feel protected with a bit of assurance that our time or money will not be ill-spent. When someone does the thinking for you, you feel cared for somehow.
Crafting: Listing is crafting. Much is considered and ruled out to achieve the honed result. Selection can be hard for people who are very open-minded, indecisive or too consumed by other obligations to stay abreast of culture. But we need art and culture to protect health. Studies indicate that personal self-expression or identification with an artist’s work boosts mood, decreases stress and seeds hope. Knowing minds deliver good choices to our fingertips so that if time opens up, we know what to grab to feel good. One is spared procrastination and risking the loss of a precious opportunity. Creativity has been defined as a combination of divergent and convergent thinking and list-makers employ this thought process. Year End Lists are an offering in the sense that they save us time and money and minimize disappointing experience.
Creating Ritual: All cultures have rituals to deal with turning points. While New Year is a cause for celebration, the somber awareness that we cannot turn back exists. Fear of regrets, letting go, loss or change can be unsettling. Year-end lists allow us to take stock, accept, evaluate, alter what we can and get excited about what is forthcoming.
The December year-end list ritual is the embodiment of a second chance and engenders that “on top of it” feeling.
Deputy Editor and Chief Film Critic for Indiewire
The world is a busy, fragmented place, especially when it comes to culture. Every week, we are inundated with options: Television, movies and music crop up just long enough to be supplanted by new options moments later. How do you catch up with the best of the year when it’s always shrinking in the shadow of the next great thing? Enter the list-makers.
As a film critic, I anticipate this challenge in January, by creating a list of my favorite movies I’ve already seen that have been scheduled for theatrical releases. That way, I don’t wind up simply sticking with the most recent titles when compiling my finalists (see my top 15 here). Lists are inherently limiting, of course; even if I put together my top 55 movies released in theaters this year, I still would miss out on showcasing some of the gems that weren’t fortunate enough to land theatrical distribution (check out the top 10 of those here).
There’s a certain righteous quality involved in the challenge of whittling down a group that actually deserves such placement. In our cluttered 21st-century media landscape, curation is key. When the greatest movie ever made might get eclipsed by the latest viral video, lists push back against the noise. More than that, they’re fun, practical ways of digesting information.
This is hardly a new phenomenon. Susan Sontag’s definitive essay “Notes on Camp” is technically a listicle featuring 58 observations about its eponymous topic. But it’s an especially valuable process during the mayhem of year-end discussions, which so often get hijacked by awards season marketing plans (beware the ubiquitous “For Your Consideration” ads) and critical amnesia—if a movie comes out in the first quarter of the year, does it make a sound by December? Year-end lists ensure that it gets the chance.