The Psychology of the Bullet Point

By Deane Barker on January 3, 2010

I’m warning you in advance that this might sound ridiculous, but I think I’ve figured out the psychology of a bullet point.

Face it, bullet points are attractive.  People usually like to see them in text.  They’re…relaxing.  We associate them with good feelings, information-wise.  Bulleted lists make us subconsciously happy.

Here’s why —

Bullet points signify a complete, contained, discrete thought.  They encapsulate some nugget of information, separate from everything else.  A bullet point tells us, “this piece of information is absorbable solely from the text in it,” and the text is usually short.

This is true for the same reason that we don’t like long blocks of text, especially long paragraphs.  Long paragraphs tell us, “this is a big thought that your brain is going to have to stretch for.”  I’m going to make some points which you will need to retain, then some more points which will build on the first points, then some more, etc.

This idea builds tension in our heads.  We automatically think “house of cards.”  I’m going to have to manage this teetering structure of knowledge, adding something on top of something else on top of something else, etc.  All this stuff is going to be chained together, and I’m going to have to hold Point A in memory and link it to Point B and so on. 

This stresses us out.  We yearn for a break.  We yearn for a new paragraph where our brains can “reset” – store the knowledge we’ve just absorbed and get ready for the next.

Bullet points visually telegraph this “reset.”  Not only do they tend to be short, but they’re discrete.  We’re implicitly promised that one bullet point can be analyzed and “owned” without any effect on the next or previous bullet points.

This is the same principle at work with list articles.  Consider these two titles:

  • How to Get a Good RFP Response
  • Five Tips for Getting a Good RFP Response

The second one will get clicked on a lot more.  People who post items to link aggregators like Digg and Reddit know this.  Cracked does the list article format almost exclusively.

We’re attracted to this format because we think, “Five small, discrete pieces of information.  I can absorb that.  No problem.  And even if I don’t like all five, they’re all going to be separate,so I can pick and remember just two or three of them if I want.”  This is relaxing to us, and thus inherently attractive.

Now, in saying this, I’m not imploring you to use more bullet points or list articles.  The fact that readers need these devices may be a damning indictment of the human attention span.  And there are absolutely subjects that can’t be bullet pointed – they need to be analyzed step-by-step, with pieces of information building on others, gradually chaining forward to some grand overall point.

God willing, everything I write will be this lofty and important.  But I doubt it.  Until that day comes, I’m going to learn not to hate the bullet point.

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Comments

  1. Hey, my favorite authors are Gene Wolfe and Herman Melville, so I’m not innately averse to complicated prose. But this is not felicitous:

    The fact that readers need these devices may be a damning indictment of the human attention span.

    The human attention span evolved to deal with, among others, environments that presented concrete dangers and opportunities. LITRACHUR comes into play when those threats and sweets are not pressing on the adrenals or the gonads.

    Business environments do tend to press on the adrenals and the gonads, at least if you’re doing it right.

    Bullet points used honestly are in and of themselves an art form. The trouble is, when they are art, no one who doesn’t have their balls in a vice or a dream of riches and power will ever appreciate them.

  2. “I’m warning you in advance that this might sound ridiculous” – it’s not ridiculous at all, in fact it is well understood that organizing information into groups of discrete manageable units is the best way to help our short term memories understand and retain information. It’s called Information Chunking.

  3. Factor in line-length, character count, the space between lines and presto: Now you can be a designer!

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