List rage makes the rankings of what irks us

  • Article by: JEFF STRICKLER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 29, 2013 - 3:56 PM

When it comes to city rankings, the Twin Cities are usually No. 1. Placing us lower makes our list of the things that irritate us most.

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The Minneapolis skyline from I-35W south of Minneapolis.

Photo: Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune

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In some still-to-be-discovered ancient civilization, there very well might be a cave in which hieroglyphics list the top 10 uses for fire. That means there likely were people in an adjoining cave who angrily disagreed with that list.

Call it list rage. While it lacks the higher profile of its cousins — road rage, computer rage and the still classic the-umpire-is-blind rage — list rage is just human nature.

The Twin Cities, and Minnesota in general, rule when it comes to lists.

We earn raves for our cleanliness, industriousness and urban green spaces. We’re applauded for our passions, from biking and reading to music and theater. We’ve even been listed as one of the nerdiest places in the country, which we’ve decided to take as a compliment.

Nonetheless, when we encounter a list that leaves us out, it can be hard not to take that slight personally. We already have a chip on our collective shoulder about being flyover land, and it doesn’t sit well when list-makers on the coasts ignore us, even if we’re ignoring whatever it is they’re listing. A snub is a snub, said Katy McEwen, artistic director at the Brave New Workshop, and we shouldn’t put up with it.

“Why do we care about these completely arbitrary lists?” she asked rhetorically. “Because underneath our mild-mannered, snow-encrusted exteriors lie the hearts of warriors. Vikings! And Vikings don’t back away from a fight, no matter how stupid or meaningless or how little bearing it has on anyone’s anything.”

Recently, Shape magazine listed the fittest cities in the United States, and we weren’t included. But last summer, the National College of Sports Medicine ranked the Twin Cities as the fittest metro area. Two lists, two different rankings. That doesn’t make sense — and that makes Minnesotans mad.

The anger doesn’t surprise Carol Bruess, a professor at the University of St. Thomas who specializes in interpersonal communication.

“We want to feel like we matter,” she said. “Because we are social beings, that sense of mattering comes from how others evaluate us. Whether it’s a list published nationally or feedback from a friend, we all are seeking a sense of self, and when we find out others don’t see us the way we see us, it can be a bit irritating and even upsetting.”

Of course, there are some lists that we don’t want to be on, such as Orkin Pest Control’s ranking of cities with the biggest bedbug infestations. Other lists we don’t mind missing, including the worst cities for spring allergies (recently reported by the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America).

The psychology of list mania

Ignore the rankings, said John Tauer, men’s basketball coach at the University of St. Thomas.

When the Tommies were ranked No. 1 in a poll last season, “I told the team that they should be proud of it and then move on,” he said. “If we start to think too much about it, it can get distracting.”

As a psychology professor at the college, he suggests that the rest of us do the same with lists.

“They’re fun, and if that’s their only purpose, that’s great,” Tauer said. But the lists often lead us to making comparisons.

“Upward social comparison is when we compare ourselves to those better than us, and downward social comparison is when we compare to those who are worse than us,” he explained. Both can be positive: An upward comparison might inspire us to work harder, while a downward comparison can bolster sagging confidence. If we become fixated on comparisons, they can derail us, he warned.

Lists have long been a mainstay of journalists, said Brendan Watson, an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Minnesota. One of the main journalistic goals of a list is to start a “dialogue” — list-speak for argument. But he agreed with Tauer — don’t put too much stock in lists.

“A lot of these rankings use meaningless data,” Watson said. “We’d hope that the consumer would have enough skepticism to consider the criteria, but that’s not always obvious to the casual reader.”

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