George Miller’s Magical Number 7, Novice Law Students and Miller’s Real Legacy

Today’s NY Times Science section featured a story entitled Seven Isn’t the Magic Number for Short-Term Memory on psychologist’s George Miller classical paper on the limits of human’s short-term memory. His theory established in a 1956 article is that there is a numerical limit of 7 items that humans can retain in “short-term” memory. The gist of the NYT story is that the limit is quaint but outdated. So what’s interesting is that the same point in the Times article was made almost 21 years ago by prominent theorist Alan Baddley (1994) in The Magical Number Seven: Still Magic After All These Years. The point made in his article is that there isn’t strictly a limit of 7 on short term memory, and that there are many exceptions or qualifications to the limit of 7.

Short-term memory, in contrast to long-term memory, storage—is our workbench or working memory that we use in active processing of information. Short-term memory limits have a big impact on novices in a new field or endeavor—e.g., novice learners of the law. In fact, novice law students have greater difficulty reading case law and solving problems using case law because novices lack the automaticity in cognitive functioning that those with greater legal expertise have. Novice law students experience a kind of cognitive overload—as they have to exert great effort on mental-intensive processes to read and interpret legal cases and solve problems based on the cases they have read.

The NY Times blurb article misses the point about Miller’s legacy. The real legacy behind his theory is that it was important to moving psychology to information-processing models of human thinking. Miller’s article was published in the mid-1950’s when the prevailing learning theory was based on a behaviorism (learning based on stimulus and response). As Baddeley points out about Miller’s theory,

“Miller pointed the way ahead for the information-processing approach to cognition.”

That’s the real enduring magical legacy of Miller.

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Filed under Educational Psychology

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