Just 1 Weird Trick to Get You to Read This Article

Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist. She wrote for the Daily Beast, Newsweek, the Atlantic and the Economist and founded the blog Asymmetrical Information. She is the author of "“The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success.”
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"I could never lose my belly fat," says the Facebook come-on, "until I found this 1 easy diet trick." Now, what is the purpose of the "1" in that sentence? If you removed it, might I be under the impression that there were two, or perhaps 18, easy diet tricks needed to lose your belly fat? I don't think so. Yet there it is ... in numeral form, no less, to make it stick out more from the surrounding text.

These sorts of headlines have swept the Internet. Now everything is a listicle, or a breathless recounting of this "1 weird trick" to boost your sex drive, get promoted or find a Manhattan parking spot near your Saturday-night dinner reservation. And I don't get it. What power does the number "1" hold to make us click?

A quick perusal of the Internet indicates that ... nobody knows. There's an entertaining article on Slate that tells us what happens if you click the ad, with some entertaining speculation from experts on why the word "weird" might entice viewers. But no word on the function of the superfluous "1."

Before I drag this out any further, let me confess that I don't know either. Putting numbers on things clearly attracts readers in the age of the Internet -- hence the rise of the listicle. I don't know why it helps to add a number "1" to emphasize a claim that is already singular (a trick, not "tricks"). Perhaps it's simply the perfect emblem for our low-commitment society. We don't want anything complicated or time-consuming. We want something simple: just a small, single weird trick that will make all our dreams come true. And we want a guarantee that it's only one weird trick, not eight steps and a form to fill out, standing between us and everything we ever wanted.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Megan McArdle at mmcardle3@bloomberg.net