The Psychology of 1, 10, 100 and 1,000

By James Wallace Harris, Sunday, May 15, 2016

1 is a special number. We can only be in love with 1 person at a time, like ducklings imprinting on their mother. This week 2 of my friends told me The Game of Thrones was their all-time favorite TV show. We can only have 1 favorite of anything—books, friends, movies, beverages, television shows, foods, songs, photos. There must be a psychology that’s special to that number. 1 is never enough, is it? How many people can we love, how many good friends can we have? I believe there’s a practical limit to that too. It might be 10 at any one time, and maybe 100 in a lifetime. Some people claim 1,000s of friends. Really?

1 10 100 1000

Psychological researchers used to say 7 of anything is the most images people can retain in their mind at once. Newer studies claim fewer. Multitasking is a myth. We’re like old Macs, good at quick task-switching. I can picture 6 marbles in a triangle pattern of 3, 2, 1. When I add number 7 next to the group of 6, the group of six disappears. Back to 1.

This is why we make lists. You might remember to bring home 4 items from the grocery store, but probably not 10. And certainly not 100. On Spotify I’ve been building TOP 1000 playlist of my favorite songs. When the list approached 500 songs, I realized there were songs I loved way more than others. So I created a TOP 100 list. It quickly filled to 123. As I listened to that list, I realize that some of those songs didn’t belong. The list is shrinking towards 100.

If asked, what my TOP 100 favorite songs were, could I recite that playlist from memory? No, that’s doubtful. That’s why we have TOP 10 lists. Few people think in lists like I do. But if they did, there’s a psychological dynamic that works with the number 10. Maybe because we have 10 fingers, or we use a base-10 numbering. 10 is memorable, but we want more than 10. That’s why we see people listing their 12, 15 and 25 favorites. I’m guessing we have the capability to love 100, or even 1,000 things. Yet, I think 10 is the around the limit we can recall quickly. A TOP 10 list can be recited to a friend, but a TOP 100 requires writing down.

I can love a 1,000 songs, but not a 1,000 movies or books—definitely not 1,000 people. A 1,000 song playlist is manageable, but not memorable. The songs are unforgettable, but I could never recite 1,000 song titles. If I had more bookshelves, I could fit 1,000 books in this room where I write. I had over 800 before the last culling, but I’ve since pared them down to less than 400. Even that many is too many for me to handle at age 64. I’m forgetting what I own.

Sometimes 1,000 is practical. Other times 100 or 10 is workable.

When Olivia and Annie told me their all-time favorite TV show was The Game of Thrones, they asked me about mine. My immediate answer was Breaking Bad. I think it hurt their feelings I didn’t agree with them. I assured them The Game of Thrones was in my TOP 10. But I was mentally rattling off many shows I liked more. In no order, Downton Abbey, Humans, Mr. Robot, Big Love, The Man in the High Castle, Battlestar Galactica, The Sopranos, Fargo, Deadwood, came quickly to mind. Ooops, did that make The Game of Thrones number 11? Were there older shows I love more, but I just couldn’t remember them at the moment? In 1961, my list would have included The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, The Twilight Zone and Have Gun-Will Travel. Would any old favorite make it to my current TOP 10?

Time constrains the numbers we can embrace, the magnitudes we can grok. On my TOP 100 playlist is “East St. Louis Toodle-Oo” by Duke Ellington from 1926. A TOP 10 list tends to focus on the current, but a TOP 100 can span time. My TOP 100 songs span 106 years. The oldest song I love is a 1910 orchestral arrangement of “Pavane pour une infante défunte” (Pavane for a Dead Princess) by Ravel. My TOP 1000 contain choral, classical and operatic works created 100s of years ago.

My guess is TOP 10 lists focus on recent experiences, whereas TOP 100 lists will span decades, and TOP 1000 can cover centuries. The beauty of subscribing to Spotify is I have a fantastic library for building my playlists. Back in the 1970s, when I haunted record superstores, I used to wish that I owned all the albums in the store. Spotify grants that wish times 100. For the past couple years I’ve been searching out my favorite songs from a lifetime of listening. That list is at 444. I’m guessing it will get close to 1,000 by the time I finish. I know collectors can own 1,000s and even 10,000s of LPs, but physically ownership is not the same psychological awareness.

I wonder, and this is just from personal experience, if 1,000 is the upper limit of our comprehension? I used to own 1,001 Books To Read Before You Die. I never read it all the way through. I eventually gave it away because it overwhelmed me to think I still had another 800 books I had to read. I figure I’ve read at least 2,500 books in my life, and probably seen more than 5,000 films, but I doubt I could ever remember more than 1,000 of each, even if I starting writing titles down with the aid of Wikipedia and IMDB. I can handle a playlist of 1,000 songs, but not a bookshelf 1,000 books, or a rack of 1,000 DVDs. When I was younger, I did, but getting old is shrinking my universe.

For a while, maybe into my 70s, I’ll search out the TOP 100 books and movies I want to cherish. I expect, as the years go by, that number will dwindle. Eventually, I’ll be down to remembering my TOP 10 of everything, and finally, if I have the right kind of death, my TOP 1 of favorite people and things will pass through my thoughts as I fade away. If I can distill that number down before I die, I’ll tell my last friend to mention them at my funeral.

JWH

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