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George Miller, Psychologist: Theories on Short Term Memory, Lesson & Quiz

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Yolanda Williams

Yolanda has taught college Information Technology, and Literacy and has a master's in counseling psychology and business administration.

George Miller is a pioneer in the field of cognitive psychology. Learn more about George Miller, his theory on short term memory, and his definition of chunking.

Introduction

Try to read the following numbers, then try to repeat the numbers one-by-one verbally or write them down without looking back at the computer screen:

1, 2, 4, 8, 6, 0, 8, 4, 1, 0, 8, 1, 3, 2

How many numbers were you able to recall? If you are like most people, you remembered between 5 and 9 of the numbers listed. The items that you remembered were stored in short term memory. We use short term memory to store information for 20 to 30 seconds. This is in contrast to long term memory, which is thought to hold an infinite amount of information for extended periods of time.

So why can we only hold so little in short term memory?

George Miller and the Magic Number Seven

The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information is a well known article that was written by the late psychologist George Miller in 1956. In this paper, Miller set out to measure the amount of information that can be held in short term memory. Miller used experimental findings from several different studies to support his idea that on average, short term memory can hold 7 ± 2 (5 to 9) chunks or bits of information. So what do we mean by chunks?

George Miller and Chunking

George Miller also distinguished between bits of information and chunks of information in his paper. A bit can be thought of as a single unit of information. For example, in the following list of numbers, each individual number is a bit of information:

2, 4, 3, 5, 9, 8, 4, 1, 0, 7, 6, 3, 2

Chunking, or taking individual units of information and combining them to form groups, is useful when storing large amounts of data in short term memory. You probably use chunking every day without even noticing it. For example, phone numbers and social security numbers are usually remembered and written down in chunks.

Suppose we separated the numbers in the example above into chunks so that instead of trying to remember 14 individual numbers, you only had to remember 6 chunks of information.

Now read the following numbers one-by-one, then try to repeat the numbers verbally or write them down without looking back at the computer screen:

24, 35, 59, 84, 107, 632

You probably found it easier to recall the numbers in the chunk list than you did the individual list. Think of your short term memory as having 5 to 9 openings that can be used to store either 1 bit or 1 chunk. By putting information in chunks, you can store a lot more information in your short term memory. The limit on the amount of information that can be stored in a single chunk is unknown.

Lesson Summary

George Miller was a psychologist who theorized that short term memory can hold between 5 and 9 pieces of information. This information can be stored in singular units called bits, or in groupings called chunks. Creating chunks of information allows you to hold more information in short term memory.

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