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ClassicsintheHistoryofPsychology
Aninternetresourcedevelopedby

ChristopherD.Green
YorkUniversity,Toronto,Ontario

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[ClassicsEditor'sNote:Footnotesareinsquarebracketsreferencesinroundbrackets]

TheMagicalNumberSeven,PlusorMinusTwo:SomeLimitsonourCapacityfor
ProcessingInformation[1]

GeorgeA.Miller(1956)
HarvardUniversity

FirstpublishedinPsychologicalReview,63,8197.

MyproblemisthatIhavebeenpersecutedbyaninteger.Forsevenyearsthisnumberhasfollowed
mearound,hasintrudedinmymostprivatedata,andhasassaultedmefromthepagesofourmost
publicjournals.Thisnumberassumesavarietyofdisguises,beingsometimesalittlelargerand
sometimesalittlesmallerthanusual,butneverchangingsomuchastobeunrecognizable.The
persistencewithwhichthisnumberplaguesmeisfarmorethanarandomaccident.Thereis,toquote
afamoussenator,adesignbehindit,somepatterngoverningitsappearances.Eithertherereallyis
somethingunusualaboutthenumberorelseIamsufferingfromdelusionsofpersecution.

Ishallbeginmycasehistorybytellingyouaboutsomeexperimentsthattestedhowaccuratelypeople
canassignnumberstothemagnitudesofvariousaspectsofastimulus.Inthetraditionallanguageof
psychologythesewouldbecalledexperimentsinabsolutejudgment.Historicalaccident,however,
hasdecreedthattheyshouldhaveanothername.Wenowcallthemexperimentsonthecapacityof
peopletotransmitinformation.Sincetheseexperimentswouldnothavebeendonewithoutthe
appearanceofinformationtheoryonthepsychologicalscene,andsincetheresultsareanalyzedin
termsoftheconceptsofinformationtheory,Ishallhavetoprefacemydiscussionwithafewremarks
aboutthistheory.

InformationMeasurement

The"amountofinformation"isexactlythesameconceptthatwehavetalkedaboutforyearsunder
thenameof"variance."Theequationsaredifferent,butifweholdtighttotheideathatanythingthat
increasesthevariancealsoincreasestheamountofinformationwecannotgofarastray.

Theadvantagesofthisnewwayoftalkingaboutvariancearesimpleenough.Varianceisalways
statedintermsoftheunitofmeasurementinches,pounds,volts,etc.whereastheamountof
informationisadimensionlessquantity.Sincetheinformationinadiscretestatisticaldistributiondoes
notdependupontheunitofmeasurement,wecanextendtheconcepttosituationswherewehaveno
metricandwewouldnotordinarilythinkofusing[p.82]thevariance.Anditalsoenablesusto
compareresultsobtainedinquitedifferentexperimentalsituationswhereitwouldbemeaninglessto
comparevariancesbasedondifferentmetrics.Sotherearesomegoodreasonsforadoptingthenewer
concept.

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Thesimilarityofvarianceandamountofinformationmightbeexplainedthisway:Whenwehavea
largevariance,weareveryignorantaboutwhatisgoingtohappen.Ifweareveryignorant,thenwhen
wemaketheobservationitgivesusalotofinformation.Ontheotherhand,ifthevarianceisvery
small,weknowinadvancehowourobservationmustcomeout,sowegetlittleinformationfrom
makingtheobservation.

Ifyouwillnowimagineacommunicationsystem,youwillrealizethatthereisagreatdealof
variabilityaboutwhatgoesintothesystemandalsoagreatdealofvariabilityaboutwhatcomesout.
Theinputandtheoutputcanthereforebedescribedintermsoftheirvariance(ortheirinformation).If
itisagoodcommunicationsystem,however,theremustbesomesystematicrelationbetweenwhat
goesinandwhatcomesout.Thatistosay,theoutputwilldependupontheinput,orwillbecorrelated
withtheinput.Ifwemeasurethiscorrelation,thenwecansayhowmuchoftheoutputvarianceis
attributabletotheinputandhowmuchisduetorandomfluctuationsor"noise"introducedbythe
systemduringtransmission.Soweseethatthemeasureoftransmittedinformationissimplya
measureoftheinputoutputcorrelation.

Therearetwosimplerulestofollow.WheneverIreferto"amountofinformation,"youwill
understand"variance."AndwheneverIreferto"amountoftransmittedinformation,"youwill
understand"covariance"or"correlation."

Thesituationcanbedescribedgraphicallybytwopartiallyoverlappingcircles.Thentheleftcircle
canbetakentorepresentthevarianceoftheinput,therightcirclethevarianceoftheoutput,andthe
overlapthecovarianceofinputandoutput.Ishallspeakoftheleftcircleastheamountofinput
information,therightcircleastheamountofoutputinformation,andtheoverlapastheamountof
transmittedinformation.

Intheexperimentsonabsolutejudgment,theobserverisconsideredtobeacommunicationchannel.
Thentheleftcirclewouldrepresenttheamountofinformationinthestimuli,therightcirclethe
amountofinformationinhisresponses,andtheoverlapthestimulusresponsecorrelationasmeasured
bytheamountoftransmittedinformation.Theexperimentalproblemistoincreasetheamountof
inputinformationandtomeasuretheamountoftransmittedinformation.Iftheobserver'sabsolute
judgmentsarequiteaccurate,thennearlyalloftheinputinformationwillbetransmittedandwillbe
recoverablefromhisresponses.Ifhemakeserrors,thenthetransmittedinformationmaybe
considerablylessthantheinput.Weexpectthat,asweincreasetheamountofinputinformation,the
observerwillbegintomakemoreandmoreerrorswecantestthelimitsofaccuracyofhisabsolute
judgments.Ifthehumanobserverisareasonablekindofcommunicationsystem,thenwhenwe
increasetheamountofinputinformationthetransmittedinformationwillincreaseatfirstandwill
eventuallyleveloffatsomeasymptoticvalue.Thisasymptoticvaluewetaketobethechannel
capacityoftheobserver:itrepresentsthegreatestamountofinformationthathecangiveusaboutthe
stimulusonthebasisofanabsolutejudgment.Thechannelcapacityistheupperlimitontheextentto
whichtheobservercanmatchhisresponsestothestimuliwegivehim.

Nowjustabriefwordaboutthebit[p.83]andwecanbegintolookatsomedata.Onebitof
informationistheamountofinformationthatweneedtomakeadecisionbetweentwoequallylikely
alternatives.Ifwemustdecidewhetheramanislessthansixfeettallormorethansixfeettallandif
weknowthatthechancesare5050,thenweneedonebitofinformation.Noticethatthisunitof
informationdoesnotreferinanywaytotheunitoflengththatweusefeet,inches,centimeters,etc.
Howeveryoumeasuretheman'sheight,westillneedjustonebitofinformation.

Twobitsofinformationenablesustodecideamongfourequallylikelyalternatives.Threebitsof
informationenableustodecideamongeightequallylikelyalternatives.Fourbitsofinformation
decideamong16alternatives,fiveamong32,andsoon.Thatistosay,ifthereare32equallylikely
alternatives,wemustmakefivesuccessivebinarydecisions,worthonebiteach,beforeweknow
whichalternativeiscorrect.Sothegeneralruleissimple:everytimethenumberofalternativesis
increasedbyafactoroftwo,onebitofinformationisadded.
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Therearetwowayswemightincreasetheamountofinputinformation.Wecouldincreasetherateat
whichwegiveinformationtotheobserver,sothattheamountofinformationperunittimewould
increase.Orwecouldignorethetimevariablecompletelyandincreasetheamountofinput
informationbyincreasingthenumberofalternativestimuli.Intheabsolutejudgmentexperimentwe
areinterestedinthesecondalternative.Wegivetheobserverasmuchtimeashewantstomakehis
responsewesimplyincreasethenumberofalternativestimuliamongwhichhemustdiscriminateand
looktoseewhereconfusionsbegintooccur.Confusionswillappearnearthepointthatwearecalling
his"channelcapacity."

AbsoluteJudgmentsofUnidimensionalStimuli

Nowletusconsiderwhathappenswhenwemakeabsolutejudgmentsoftones.Pollack(17)asked
listenerstoidentifytonesbyassigningnumeralstothem.Thetonesweredifferentwithrespectto
frequency,andcoveredtherangefrom100to8000cpsinequallogarithmicsteps.Atonewas
soundedandthelistenerrespondedbygivinganumeral.Afterthelistenerhadmadehisresponsehe
wastoldthecorrectidentificationofthetone.

Whenonlytwoorthreetoneswereusedthelistenersneverconfusedthem.Withfourdifferenttones
confusionswerequiterare,butwithfiveormoretonesconfusionswerefrequent.Withfourteen
differenttonesthelistenersmademanymistakes.

ThesedataareplottedinFig.1.Alongthebottomisthe
amountofinputinformationinbitsperstimulus.Asthe
numberofalternativetoneswasincreasedfrom2to14,
theinputinformationincreasedfrom1to3.8bits.Onthe
ordinateisplottedtheamountof[p.84]transmitted
information.Theamountoftransmittedinformation
behavesinmuchthewaywewouldexpecta
communicationchanneltobehavethetransmitted
informationincreaseslinearlyuptoabout2bitsandthen
bendsofftowardanasymptoteatabout2.5bits.This
value,2.5bits,therefore,iswhatwearecallingthe
channelcapacityofthelistenerforabsolutejudgmentsof
pitch.

Sonowwehavethenumber2.5bits.Whatdoesitmean?
First,notethat2.5bitscorrespondstoaboutsixequally
likelyalternatives.Theresultmeansthatwecannotpick
morethansixdifferentpitchesthatthelistenerwillnever
confuse.Or,statedslightlydifferently,nomatterhow
manyalternativetonesweaskhimtojudge,thebestwecanexpecthimtodoistoassignthemto
aboutsixdifferentclasseswithouterror.Or,again,ifweknowthattherewereNalternativestimuli,
thenhisjudgmentenablesustonarrowdowntheparticularstimulustooneoutofN/6.

Mostpeoplearesurprisedthatthenumberisassmallassix.Ofcourse,thereisevidencethata
musicallysophisticatedpersonwithabsolutepitchcanidentifyaccuratelyanyoneof50or60
differentpitches.Fortunately,Idonothavetimetodiscusstheseremarkableexceptions.Isayitis
fortunatebecauseIdonotknowhowtoexplaintheirsuperiorperformance.SoIshallsticktothe
morepedestrianfactthatmostofuscanidentifyaboutoneoutofonlyfiveorsixpitchesbeforewe
begintogetconfused.

Itisinterestingtoconsiderthatpsychologistshavebeenusingsevenpointratingscalesforalong
time,ontheintuitivebasisthattryingtorateintofinercategoriesdoesnotreallyaddmuchtothe
usefulnessoftheratings.Pollack'sresultsindicatethat,atleastforpitches,thisintuitionisfairly
sound.
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Nextyoucanaskhowreproduciblethisresultis.Doesit
dependonthespacingofthetonesorthevarious
conditionsofjudgment?Pollackvariedtheseconditionsin
anumberofways.Therangeoffrequenciescanbe
changedbyafactorofabout20withoutchangingthe
amountofinformationtransmittedmorethanasmall
percentage.Differentgroupingsofthepitchesdecreased
thetransmission,butthelosswassmall.Forexample,if
youcandiscriminatefivehighpitchedtonesinoneseries
andfivelowpitchedtonesinanotherseries,itis
reasonabletoexpectthatyoucouldcombinealltenintoa
singleseriesandstilltellthemallapartwithouterror.
Whenyoutryit,however,itdoesnotwork.Thechannel
capacityforpitchseemstobeaboutsixandthatisthebestyoucando.

Whileweareontones,letuslooknextatGarner's(7)workonloudness.Garner'sdataforloudness
aresummarizedinFig.2.Garnerwenttosometroubletogetthebestpossiblespacingofhistones
overtheintensityrangefrom15to110db.Heused4,5,6,7,10,and20differentstimulusintensities.
TheresultsshowninFig.2takeintoaccountthedifferencesamongsubjectsandthesequential
influenceoftheimmediatelyprecedingjudgment.Againwefindthatthereseemstobealimit.[p.85]
Thechannelcapacityforabsolutejudgmentsofloudnessis2.3bits,oraboutfiveperfectly
discriminablealternatives.

Sincethesetwostudiesweredoneindifferent
laboratorieswithslightlydifferenttechniquesand
methodsofanalysis,wearenotinagoodpositionto
arguewhetherfiveloudnessesissignificantlydifferent
fromsixpitches.Probablythedifferenceisintheright
direction,andabsolutejudgmentsofpitchareslightly
moreaccuratethanabsolutejudgmentsofloudness.The
importantpoint,however,isthatthetwoanswersareof
thesameorderofmagnitude.

Theexperimenthasalsobeendonefortasteintensities.In
Fig.3aretheresultsobtainedbyBeebeCenter,Rogers,
andO'Connell(1)forabsolutejudgmentsofthe
concentrationofsaltsolutions.Theconcentrationsranged
from0.3to34.7gm.NaClper100cc.tapwaterinequalsubjectivesteps.Theyused3,5,9,and17
differentconcentrations.Thechannelcapacityis1.9bits,whichisaboutfourdistinctconcentrations.
Thustasteintensitiesseemalittlelessdistinctivethanauditorystimuli,butagaintheorderof
magnitudeisnotfaroff.

Ontheotherhand,thechannelcapacityforjudgmentsofvisualpositionseemstobesignificantly
larger.HakeandGarner(8)askedobserverstointerpolatevisuallybetweentwoscalemarkers.Their
resultsareshowninFig.4.Theydidtheexperimentintwoways.Inoneversiontheylettheobserver
useanynumberbetweenzeroand100todescribetheposition,althoughtheypresentedstimuliatonly
5,10,20,or50differentpositions.Theresultswiththisunlimitedresponsetechniqueareshownby
thefilledcirclesonthegraph.Intheotherversiontheobserverswerelimitedintheirresponsesto
reportingjustthosestimulusvaluesthatwerepossible.Thatistosay,inthesecondversionthe
numberofdifferentresponsesthattheobservercouldmakewasexactlythesameasthenumberof
differentstimulithattheexperimentermightpresent.Theresultswiththislimitedresponsetechnique
areshownbytheopencirclesonthegraph.Thetwofunctionsaresosimilarthatisseemsfairto
concludethatthenumberofresponsesavailabletotheobserverhadnothingtodowiththechannel

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capacityof3.25bits.

TheHakeGarnerexperimenthasbeenrepeatedby
CoonanandKlemmer.Althoughtheyhavenotyet
publishedtheirresults,theyhavegivenmepermissionto
saythattheyobtainedchannelcapacitiesrangingfrom
3.2bitsfor[p.86]veryshortexposuresofthepointer
positionto3.9bitsforlongerexposures.Thesevaluesare
slightlyhigherthanHakeandGarner's,sowemust
concludethattherearebetween10and15distinct
positionsalongalinearinterval.Thisisthelargest
channelcapacitythathasbeenmeasuredforany
unidimensionalvariable.

Atthepresenttimethesefourexperimentsonabsolute
judgmentsofsimple,unidimensionalstimuliareallthat
haveappearedinthepsychologicaljournals.However,agreatdealofworkonotherstimulus
variableshasnotyetappearedinthejournals.Forexample,EriksenandHake(6)havefoundthatthe
channelcapacityforjudgingthesizesofsquaresis2.2bits,oraboutfivecategories,underawide
rangeofexperimentalconditions.InaseparateexperimentEriksen(5)found2.8bitsforsize,3.1bits
forhue,and2.3bitsforbrightness.Geldardhasmeasuredthechannelcapacityfortheskinbyplacing
vibratorsonthechestregion.Agoodobservercanidentifyaboutfourintensities,aboutfivedurations,
andaboutsevenlocations.

OneofthemostactivegroupsinthisareahasbeentheAirForceOperationalApplications
Laboratory.Pollackhasbeenkindenoughtofurnishmewiththeresultsoftheirmeasurementsfor
severalaspectsofvisualdisplays.Theymademeasurementsforareaandforthecurvature,length,and
directionoflines.Inonesetofexperimentstheyusedaveryshortexposureofthestimulus1/40
secondandthentheyrepeatedthemeasurementswitha5secondexposure.Forareatheygot2.6bits
withtheshortexposureand2.7bitswiththelongexposure.Forthelengthofalinetheygotabout2.6
bitswiththeshortexposureandabout3.0bitswiththelongexposure.Direction,orangleof
inclination,gave2.8bitsfortheshortexposureand3.3bitsforthelongexposure.Curvaturewas
apparentlyhardertojudge.Whenthelengthofthearcwasconstant,theresultattheshortexposure
durationwas2.2bits,butwhenthelengthofthechordwasconstant,theresultwasonly1.6bits.This
lastvalueisthelowestthatanyonehasmeasuredtodate.Ishouldadd,however,thatthesevaluesare
apttobeslightlytoolowbecausethedatafromallsubjectswerepooledbeforethetransmitted
informationwascomputed.

Nowletusseewhereweare.First,thechannelcapacitydoesseemtobeavalidnotionfordescribing
humanobservers.Second,thechannelcapacitiesmeasuredfortheseunidimensionalvariablesrange
from1.6bitsforcurvatureto3.9bitsforpositionsinaninterval.Althoughthereisnoquestionthat
thedifferencesamongthevariablesarerealandmeaningful,themoreimpressivefacttomeistheir
considerablesimilarity.IfItakethebestestimatesIcangetofthechannelcapacitiesforallthe
stimulusvariablesIhavementioned,themeanis2.6bitsandthestandarddeviationisonly0.6bit.In
termsofdistinguishablealternatives,thismeancorrespondstoabout6.5categories,onestandard
deviationincludesfrom4to10categories,andthetotalrangeisfrom3to15categories.Considering
thewidevarietyofdifferentvariablesthathavebeenstudied,Ifindthistobearemarkablynarrow
range.

Thereseemstobesomelimitationbuiltintouseitherbylearningorbythedesignofournervous
systems,alimitthatkeepsourchannelcapacitiesinthisgeneralrange.Onthebasisofthepresent
evidenceitseemssafetosaythatwepossessafiniteandrathersmallcapacityformakingsuch
unidimensionaljudgmentsandthatthiscapacitydoesnotvaryagreatdealfromonesimplesensory
attributetoanother.

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[p.87]AbsoluteJudgmentsofMultidimensionalStimuli

YoumayhavenoticedthatIhavebeencarefultosaythatthismagicalnumbersevenappliestoone
dimensionaljudgments.Everydayexperienceteachesusthatwecanidentifyaccuratelyanyoneof
severalhundredfaces,anyoneofseveralthousandwords,anyoneofseveralthousandobjects,etc.
Thestorycertainlywouldnotbecompleteifwestoppedatthispoint.Wemusthavesome
understandingofwhytheonedimensionalvariableswejudgeinthelaboratorygiveresultssofarout
oflinewithwhatwedoconstantlyinourbehavioroutsidethelaboratory.Apossibleexplanationlies
inthenumberofindependentlyvariableattributesofthestimulithatarebeingjudged.Objects,faces,
words,andthelikedifferfromoneanotherinmanyways,whereasthesimplestimuliwehave
consideredthusfardifferfromoneanotherinonlyonerespect.

Fortunately,thereareafewdataonwhathappenswhen
wemakeabsolutejudgmentsofstimulithatdifferfrom
oneanotherinseveralways.Letuslookfirstattheresults
KlemmerandFrick(13)havereportedfortheabsolute
judgmentofthepositionofadotinasquare.InFig.5we
seetheirresults.Nowthechannelcapacityseemstohave
increasedto4.6bits,whichmeansthatpeoplecanidentify
accuratelyanyoneof24positionsinthesquare.

Thepositionofadotinasquareisclearlyatwo
dimensionalproposition.Bothitshorizontalandits
verticalpositionmustbeidentified.Thusitseemsnatural
tocomparethe4.6bitcapacityforasquarewiththe3.25
bitcapacityforthepositionofapointinaninterval.The
pointinthesquarerequirestwojudgmentsoftheintervaltype.Ifwehaveacapacityof3.25bitsfor
estimatingintervalsandwedothistwice,weshouldget6.5bitsasourcapacityforlocatingpointsin
asquare.Addingthesecondindependentdimensiongivesusanincreasefrom3.25to4.6,butitfalls
shortoftheperfectadditionthatwouldgive6.5bits.

AnotherexampleisprovidedbyBeebeCenter,Rogers,andO'Connell.Whentheyaskedpeopleto
identifyboththesaltinessandthesweetnessofsolutionscontainingvariousconcentrationsofsaltand
sucrose,theyfoundthatthechannelcapacitywas2.3bits.Sincethecapacityforsaltalonewas1.9,
wemightexpectabout3.8bitsifthetwoaspectsofthecompoundstimuliwerejudgedindependently.
Aswithspatiallocations,theseconddimensionaddsalittletothecapacitybutnotasmuchasit
conceivablymight.

AthirdexampleisprovidedbyPollack(18),whoaskedlistenerstojudgeboththeloudnessandthe
pitchofpuretones.Sincepitchgives2.5bitsandloudnessgives2.3bits,wemighthopetogetas
muchas4.8bitsforpitchandloudnesstogether.Pollackobtained3.1bits,whichagainindicatesthat
theseconddimensionaugmentsthechannelcapacitybutnotsomuchasitmight.

AfourthexamplecanbedrawnfromtheworkofHalseyandChapanis(9)onconfusionsamong
colorsofequal[p.88]luminance.Althoughtheydidnotanalyzetheirresultsininformationalterms,
theyestimatethatthereareabout11to15identifiablecolors,or,inourterms,about3.6bits.Since
thesecolorsvariedinbothhueandsaturation,itisprobablycorrecttoregardthisasatwo
dimensionaljudgment.IfwecomparethiswithEriksen's3.1bitsforhue(whichisaquestionable
comparisontodraw),weagainhavesomethinglessthanperfectadditionwhenaseconddimensionis
added.

Itisstillalongway,however,fromthesetwodimensionalexamplestothemultidimensionalstimuli
providedbyfaces,words,etc.Tofillthisgapwehaveonlyoneexperiment,anauditorystudydoneby
PollackandFicks(19).Theymanagedtogetsixdifferentacousticvariablesthattheycouldchange:
frequency,intensity,rateofinterruption,ontimefraction,totalduration,andspatiallocation.Each
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oneofthesesixvariablescouldassumeanyoneoffivedifferentvalues,soaltogethertherewere56,
or15,625differenttonesthattheycouldpresent.Thelistenersmadeaseparateratingforeachoneof
thesesixdimensions.Undertheseconditionsthetransmittedinformationwas7.2bits,which
correspondstoabout150differentcategoriesthatcouldbeabsolutelyidentifiedwithouterror.Now
wearebeginningtogetupintotherangethatordinaryexperiencewouldleadustoexpect.

Supposethatweplotthesedata,fragmentaryastheyare,andmakeaguessabouthowthechannel
capacitychangeswiththedimensionalityofthestimuli.TheresultisgiveninFig.6.Inamomentof
considerabledaringIsketchedthedottedlinetoindicateroughlythetrendthatthedataseemedtobe
taking.

Clearly,theadditionofindependentlyvariableattributesto
thestimulusincreasesthechannelcapacity,butata
decreasingrate.Itisinterestingtonotethatthechannel
capacityisincreasedevenwhentheseveralvariablesare
notindependent.Eriksen(5)reportsthat,whensize,
brightness,andhueallvarytogetherinperfectcorrelation,
thetransmittedinformationis4.1bitsascomparedwithan
averageofabout2.7bitswhentheseattributesarevaried
oneatatime.Byconfoundingthreeattributes,Eriksen
increasedthedimensionalityoftheinputwithout
increasingtheamountofinputinformationtheresultwas
anincreaseinchannelcapacityofabouttheamountthat
thedottedfunctioninFig.6wouldleadustoexpect.

Thepointseemstobethat,asweaddmorevariablestothedisplay,weincreasethetotalcapacity,but
wedecreasetheaccuracyforanyparticularvariable.Inotherwords,wecanmakerelativelycrude
judgmentsofseveralthingssimultaneously.

Wemightarguethatinthecourseofevolutionthoseorganismsweremostsuccessfulthatwere
responsivetothewidestrangeofstimulusenergiesintheirenvironment.Inordertosurviveina
constantlyfluctuatingworld,itwasbettertohavealittleinformationaboutalotofthingsthantohave
alotofinformationaboutasmallsegmentofthe[p.89]environment.Ifacompromisewasnecessary,
theoneweseemtohavemadeisclearlythemoreadaptive.

PollackandFicks'sresultsareverystronglysuggestiveofanargumentthatlinguistsandphoneticians
havebeenmakingforsometime(11).Accordingtothelinguisticanalysisofthesoundsofhuman
speech,thereareabouteightortendimensionsthelinguistscallthemdistinctivefeaturesthat
distinguishonephonemefromanother.Thesedistinctivefeaturesareusuallybinary,oratmost
ternary,innature.Forexample,abinarydistinctionismadebetweenvowelsandconsonants,abinary
decisionismadebetweenoralandnasalconsonants,aternarydecisionismadeamongfront,middle,
andbackphonemes,etc.Thisapproachgivesusquiteadifferentpictureofspeechperceptionthanwe
mightotherwiseobtainfromourstudiesofthespeechspectrumandoftheear'sabilitytodiscriminate
relativedifferencesamongpuretones.Iampersonallymuchinterestedinthisnewapproach(15),and
Iregretthatthereisnottimetodiscussithere.

ItwasprobablywiththislinguistictheoryinmindthatPollackandFicksconductedatestonasetof
tonalstimulithatvariedineightdimensions,butrequiredonlyabinarydecisiononeachdimension.
Withthesetonestheymeasuredthetransmittedinformationat6.9bits,orabout120recognizable
kindsofsounds.Itisanintriguingquestion,asyetunexplored,whetheronecangoonadding
dimensionsindefinitelyinthisway.

Inhumanspeechthereisclearlyalimittothenumberofdimensionsthatweuse.Inthisinstance,
however,itisnotknownwhetherthelimitisimposedbythenatureoftheperceptualmachinerythat

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mustrecognizethesoundsorbythenatureofthespeechmachinerythatmustproducethem.
Somebodywillhavetodotheexperimenttofindout.Thereisalimit,however,atabouteightornine
distinctivefeaturesineverylanguagethathasbeenstudied,andsowhenwetalkwemustresortto
stillanothertrickforincreasingourchannelcapacity.Languageusessequencesofphonemes,sowe
makeseveraljudgmentssuccessivelywhenwelistentowordsandsentences.Thatistosay,weuse
bothsimultaneousandsuccessivediscriminationsinordertoexpandtheratherrigidlimitsimposedby
theinaccuracyofourabsolutejudgmentsofsimplemagnitudes.

ThesemultidimensionaljudgmentsarestronglyreminiscentoftheabstractionexperimentofKlpe
(14).Asyoumayremember,Klpeshowedthatobserversreportmoreaccuratelyonanattributefor
whichtheyaresetthanonattributesforwhichtheyarenotset.Forexample,Chapman(4)usedthree
differentattributesandcomparedtheresultsobtainedwhentheobserverswereinstructedbeforethe
tachistoschopicpresentationwiththeresultsobtainedwhentheywerenottolduntilafterthe
presentationwhichoneofthethreeattributeswastobereported.Whentheinstructionwasgivenin
advance,thejudgmentsweremoreaccurate.Whentheinstructionwasgivenafterwards,thesubjects
presumablyhadtojudgeallthreeattributesinordertoreportonanyoneofthemandtheaccuracy
wascorrespondinglylower.Thisisincompleteaccordwiththeresultswehavejustbeenconsidering,
wheretheaccuracyofjudgmentoneachattributedecreasedasmoredimensionswereadded.The
pointisprobablyobvious,butIshallmakeitanyhow,thattheabstractionexperimentsdidnot
demonstratethatpeoplecanjudgeonlyoneattributeatatime.Theymerelyshowedwhatseemsquite
reasonable,thatpeoplearelessaccurateiftheymustjudgemorethanoneattributesimultaneously.

[p.90]Subitizing

Icannotleavethisgeneralareawithoutmentioning,howeverbriefly,theexperimentsconductedat
MountHolyokeCollegeonthediscriminationofnumber(12).InexperimentsbyKaufman,Lord,
Reese,andVolkmannrandompatternsofdotswereflashedonascreenfor1/5ofasecond.
Anywherefrom1tomorethan200dotscouldappearinthepattern.Thesubject'staskwastoreport
howmanydotstherewere.

Thefirstpointtonoteisthatonpatternscontaininguptofiveorsixdotsthesubjectssimplydidnot
makeerrors.Theperformanceonthesesmallnumbersofdotswassodifferentfromtheperformance
withmoredotsthatiswasgivenaspecialname.Belowseventhesubjectsweresaidtosubitizeabove
seventheyweresaidtoestimate.Thisis,asyouwillrecognize,whatweonceoptimisticallycalled
"thespanofattention."

Thisdiscontinuityatsevenis,ofcourse,suggestive.Isthisthesamebasicprocessthatlimitsour
unidimensionaljudgmentstoaboutsevencategories?Thegeneralizationistempting,butnotsoundin
myopinion.Thedataonnumberestimateshavenotbeenanalyzedininformationaltermsbutonthe
basisofthepublisheddataIwouldguessthatthesubjectstransmittedsomethingmorethanfourbits
ofinformationaboutthenumberofdots.Usingthesameargumentsasbefore,wewouldconcludethat
thereareabout20or30distinguishablecategoriesofnumerousness.Thisisconsiderablymore
informationthanwewouldexpecttogetfromaunidimensionaldisplay.Itis,asamatteroffact,very
muchlikeatwodimensionaldisplay.Althoughthedimensionalityoftherandomdotpatternsisnot
entirelyclear,theseresultsareinthesamerangeasKlemmerandFrick'sfortheirtwodimensional
displayofdotsinasquare.Perhapsthetwodimensionsofnumerousnessareareaanddensity.When
thesubjectcansubitize,areaanddensitymaynotbethesignificantvariables,butwhenthesubject
mustestimateperhapstheyaresignificant.Inanyevent,thecomparisonisnotsosimpleasitmight
seematfirstthought.

Thisisoneofthewaysinwhichthemagicalnumbersevenhaspersecutedme.Herewehavetwo
closelyrelatedkindsofexperiments,bothofwhichpointtothesignificanceofthenumbersevenasa
limitonourcapacities.Andyetwhenweexaminethemattermoreclosely,thereseemstobea
reasonablesuspicionthatitisnothingmorethanacoincidence.

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TheSpanofImmediateMemory

Letmesummarizethesituationinthisway.Thereisaclearanddefinitelimittotheaccuracywith
whichwecanidentifyabsolutelythemagnitudeofaunidimensionalstimulusvariable.Iwould
proposetocallthislimitthespanofabsolutejudgment,andImaintainthatforunidimensional
judgmentsthisspanisusuallysomewhereintheneighborhoodofseven.Wearenotcompletelyatthe
mercyofthislimitedspan,however,becausewehaveavarietyoftechniquesforgettingarounditand
increasingtheaccuracyofourjudgments.Thethreemostimportantofthesedevicesare(a)tomake
relativeratherthanabsolutejudgments.or,ifthatisnotpossible,(b)toincreasethenumberof
dimensionsalongwhichthestimulicandifferor(c)toarrangethetaskinsuchawaythatwemakea
sequenceofseveralabsolutejudgmentsinarow.

Thestudyofrelativejudgmentsisoneoftheoldesttopicsinexperimentalpsychology,andIwillnot
pausetoreviewitnow.Theseconddevice,increasingthedimensionality,wehavejustconsidered.It
seemsthatbyadding[p.91]moredimensionsandrequiringcrude,binary,yesnojudgmentsoneach
attributewecanextendthespanofabsolutejudgmentfromseventoatleast150.Judgingfromour
everydaybehavior,thelimitisprobablyinthethousands,ifindeedthereisalimit.Inmyopinion,we
cannotgooncompoundingdimensionsindefinitely.Isuspectthatthereisalsoaspanofperceptual
dimensionalityandthatthisspanissomewhereintheneighborhoodoften,butImustaddatoncethat
thereisnoobjectiveevidencetosupportthissuspicion.Thisisaquestionsadlyneedingexperimental
exploration.

Concerningthethirddevice,theuseofsuccessivejudgments,Ihavequiteabittosaybecausethis
deviceintroducesmemoryasthehandmaidenofdiscrimination.And,sincemnemonicprocessesare
atleastascomplexasareperceptualprocesses,wecananticipatethattheirinteractionswillnotbe
easilydisentangled.

Supposethatwestartbysimplyextendingslightlytheexperimentalprocedurethatwehavebeen
using.Uptothispointwehavepresentedasinglestimulusandaskedtheobservertonameit
immediatelythereafter.Wecanextendthisprocedurebyrequiringtheobservertowithholdhis
responseuntilwehavegivenhimseveralstimuliinsuccession.Attheendofthesequenceofstimuli
hethenmakeshisresponse.Westillhavethesamesortofinputoutputsituationthatisrequiredfor
themeasurementoftransmittedinformation.Butnowwehavepassedfromanexperimentonabsolute
judgmenttowhatistraditionallycalledanexperimentonimmediatememory.

BeforewelookatanydataonthistopicIfeelImustgiveyouawordofwarningtohelpyouavoid
someobviousassociationsthatcanbeconfusing.Everybodyknowsthatthereisafinitespanof
immediatememoryandthatforalotofdifferentkindsoftestmaterialsthisspanisaboutsevenitems
inlength.Ihavejustshownyouthatthereisaspanofabsolutejudgmentthatcandistinguishabout
sevencategoriesandthatthereisaspanofattentionthatwillencompassaboutsixobjectsataglance.
Whatismorenaturalthantothinkthatallthreeofthesespansaredifferentaspectsofasingle
underlyingprocess?Andthatisafundamentalmistake,asIshallbeatsomepainstodemonstrate.
Thismistakeisoneofthemaliciouspersecutionsthatthemagicalnumbersevenhassubjectedmeto.

Mymistakewentsomethinglikethis.Wehaveseenthattheinvariantfeatureinthespanofabsolute
judgmentistheamountofinformationthattheobservercantransmit.Thereisarealoperational
similaritybetweentheabsolutejudgmentexperimentandtheimmediatememoryexperiment.If
immediatememoryislikeabsolutejudgment,thenitshouldfollowthattheinvariantfeatureinthe
spanofimmediatememoryisalsotheamountofinformationthatanobservercanretain.Ifthe
amountofinformationinthespanofimmediatememoryisaconstant,thenthespanshouldbeshort
whentheindividualitemscontainalotofinformationandthespanshouldbelongwhentheitems
containlittleinformation.Forexample,decimaldigitsareworth3.3bitsapiece.Wecanrecallabout
sevenofthem,foratotalof23bitsofinformation.IsolatedEnglishwordsareworthabout10bits
apiece.Ifthetotalamountofinformationistoremainconstantat23bits,thenweshouldbeableto
rememberonlytwoorthreewordschosenatrandom.InthiswayIgeneratedatheoryabouthowthe
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spanofimmediatememoryshouldvaryasafunctionoftheamountofinformationperiteminthetest
materials.

Themeasurementsofmemoryspanintheliteraturearesuggestiveonthis[p.92]question,butnot
definitive.Andsoitwasnecessarytodotheexperimenttosee.Hayes(10)trieditoutwithfive
differentkindsoftestmaterials:binarydigits,decimaldigits,lettersofthealphabet,lettersplus
decimaldigits,andwith1,000monosyllabicwords.Thelistswerereadaloudattherateofoneitem
persecondandthesubjectshadasmuchtimeastheyneededtogivetheirresponses.Aprocedure
describedbyWoodworth(20)wasusedtoscoretheresponses.

TheresultsareshownbythefilledcirclesinFig.7.Here
thedottedlineindicateswhatthespanshouldhavebeen
iftheamountofinformationinthespanwereconstant.
Thesolidcurvesrepresentthedata.Hayesrepeatedthe
experimentusingtestvocabulariesofdifferentsizesbut
allcontainingonlyEnglishmonosyllables(opencircles
inFig.7).Thismorehomogeneoustestmaterialdidnot
changethepicturesignificantly.Withbinaryitemsthe
spanisaboutnineand,althoughitdropstoaboutfive
withmonosyllabicEnglishwords,thedifferenceisfar
lessthanthehypothesisofconstantinformationwould
require.

ThereisnothingwrongwithHayes'sexperiment,
becausePollack(16)repeateditmuchmoreelaborately
andgotessentiallythesameresult.Pollacktookpainsto
measuretheamountofinformationtransmittedanddid
notrelyonthetraditionalprocedureforscoringthe
responses.HisresultsareplottedinFig.8.Hereitisclearthattheamountofinformationtransmitted
isnotaconstant,butincreasesalmostlinearlyastheamountofinformationperitemintheinputis
increased.

Andsotheoutcomeisperfectlyclear.Inspiteofthe
coincidencethatthemagicalnumbersevenappearsin
bothplaces,thespanofabsolutejudgmentandthespanof
immediatememoryarequitedifferentkindsoflimitations
thatareimposedonourabilitytoprocessinformation.
Absolutejudgmentislimitedbytheamountof
information.Immediatememoryislimitedbythenumber
ofitems.Inordertocapturethisdistinctioninsomewhat
picturesqueterms,Ihavefallenintothecustomof
distinguishingbetweenbitsofinformationandchunksof
information.ThenIcansaythatthenumberofbitsof
informationisconstantforabsolutejudgmentandthe
numberofchunksofinforma[p.93]tionisconstantfor
immediatememory.Thespanofimmediatememory
seemstobealmostindependentofthenumberofbitsper
chunk,atleastovertherangethathasbeenexaminedto
date.

Thecontrastofthetermsbitandchunkalsoservestohighlightthefactthatwearenotverydefinite
aboutwhatconstitutesachunkofinformation.Forexample,thememoryspanoffivewordsthat
Hayesobtainedwheneachwordwasdrawnatrandomfromasetof1000Englishmonosyllables
mightjustasappropriatelyhavebeencalledamemoryspanof15phonemes,sinceeachwordhad

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aboutthreephonemesinit.Intuitively,itisclearthatthesubjectswererecallingfivewords,not15
phonemes,butthelogicaldistinctionisnotimmediatelyapparent.Wearedealingherewithaprocess
oforganizingorgroupingtheinputintofamiliarunitsorchunks,andagreatdealoflearninghasgone
intotheformationofthesefamiliarunits.

Recoding

Inordertospeakmoreprecisely,therefore,wemustrecognizetheimportanceofgroupingor
organizingtheinputsequenceintounitsorchunks.Sincethememoryspanisafixednumberof
chunks,wecanincreasethenumberofbitsofinformationthatitcontainssimplybybuildinglarger
andlargerchunks,eachchunkcontainingmoreinformationthanbefore.

Amanjustbeginningtolearnradiotelegraphiccodehearseachditanddahasaseparatechunk.Soon
heisabletoorganizethesesoundsintolettersandthenhecandealwiththelettersaschunks.Then
thelettersorganizethemselvesaswords,whicharestilllargerchunks,andhebeginstohearwhole
phrases.Idonotmeanthateachstepisadiscreteprocess,orthatplateausmustappearinhislearning
curve,forsurelythelevelsoforganizationareachievedatdifferentratesandoverlapeachother
duringthelearningprocess.Iamsimplypointingtotheobviousfactthattheditsanddahsare
organizedbylearningintopatternsandthatastheselargerchunksemergetheamountofmessagethat
theoperatorcanrememberincreasescorrespondingly.InthetermsIamproposingtouse,theoperator
learnstoincreasethebitsperchunk.

Inthejargonofcommunicationtheory,thisprocesswouldbecalledrecoding.Theinputisgivenina
codethatcontainsmanychunkswithfewbitsperchunk.Theoperatorrecodestheinputintoanother
codethatcontainsfewerchunkswithmorebitsperchunk.Therearemanywaystodothisrecoding,
butprobablythesimplestistogrouptheinputevents,applyanewnametothegroup,andthen
rememberthenewnameratherthantheoriginalinputevents.

SinceIamconvincedthatthisprocessisaverygeneralandimportantoneforpsychology,Iwantto
tellyouaboutademonstrationexperimentthatshouldmakeperfectlyexplicitwhatIamtalkingabout.
ThisexperimentwasconductedbySidneySmithandwasreportedbyhimbeforetheEastern
PsychologicalAssociationin1954.

Beginwiththeobservedfactthatpeoplecanrepeatbackeightdecimaldigits,butonlyninebinary
digits.Sincethereisalargediscrepancyintheamountofinformationrecalledinthesetwocases,we
suspectatoncethatarecodingprocedurecouldbeusedtoincreasethespanofimmediatememoryfor
binarydigits.InTable1amethodforgroupingandrenamingisillustrated.Alongthetopisa
sequenceof18binarydigits,farmorethananysubjectwasabletorecallafterasinglepresentation.In
thenextlinethesesamebinarydigitsaregroupedbypairs.Fourpossiblepairscanoccur:00is
renamed0,01isrenamed1,10isrenamed2,and11is[p.94]renamed3.Thatistosay,werecode
fromabasetwoarithmetictoabasefourarithmetic.Intherecodedsequencetherearenowjustnine
digitstoremember,andthisisalmostwithinthespanofimmediatememory.Inthenextlinethesame
sequenceofbinarydigitsisregroupedintochunksofthree.Thereareeightpossiblesequencesof
three,sowegiveeachsequenceanewnamebetween0and7.Nowwehaverecodedfromasequence
of18binarydigitsintoasequenceof6octaldigits,andthisiswellwithinthespanofimmediate
memory.Inthelasttwolinesthebinarydigitsaregroupedbyfoursandbyfivesandaregiven
decimaldigitnamesfrom0to15andfrom0to31.

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Itisreasonablyobviousthatthiskindofrecodingincreasesthebitsperchunk,andpackagesthe
binarysequenceintoaformthatcanberetainedwithinthespanofimmediatememory.SoSmith
assembled20subjectsandmeasuredtheirspansforbinaryandoctaldigits.Thespanswere9for
binariesand7foroctals.Thenhegaveeachrecodingschemetofiveofthesubjects.Theystudiedthe
recodinguntiltheysaidtheyunderstooditforabout5or10minutes.Thenhetestedtheirspanfor
binarydigitsagainwhiletheytriedtousetherecodingschemestheyhadstudied.

Therecodingschemesincreasedtheirspanforbinarydigitsineverycase.Buttheincreasewasnotas
largeaswehadexpectedonthebasisoftheirspanforoctaldigits.Sincethediscrepancyincreasedas
therecodingratioincreased,wereasonedthatthefewminutesthesubjectshadspentlearningthe
recodingschemeshadnotbeensufficient.Apparentlythetranslationfromonecodetotheothermust
bealmostautomaticorthesubjectwilllosepartofthenextgroupwhileheistryingtorememberthe
translationofthelastgroup.

Sincethe4:1and5:1ratiosrequireconsiderablestudy,SmithdecidedtoimitateEbbinghausanddo
theexperimentonhimself.WithGermanicpatiencehedrilledhimselfoneachrecodingsuccessively,
andobtainedtheresultsshowninFig.9.Herethedatafollowalongrathernicelywiththeresultsyou
wouldpredictonthebasisofhisspanforoctaldigits.Hecouldremember12octaldigits.Withthe2:1
recoding,these12chunkswereworth24binarydigits.Withthe3:1recodingtheywereworth36
binarydigits.Withthe4:1and5:1recodings,theywereworthabout40binarydigits.

Itisalittledramatictowatchapersonget40binarydigitsinarowandthenrepeatthembackwithout
error.However,ifyouthinkofthismerelyas[p.95]amnemonictrickforextendingthememory
span,youwillmissthemoreimportantpointthatisimplicitinnearlyallsuchmnemonicdevices.The
pointisthatrecodingisanextremelypowerfulweaponforincreasingtheamountofinformationthat
wecandealwith.Inoneformoranotherweuserecodingconstantlyinourdailybehavior.

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Inmyopinionthemostcustomarykindofrecodingthat
wedoallthetimeistotranslateintoaverbalcode.When
thereisastoryoranargumentoranideathatwewantto
remember,weusuallytrytorephraseit"inourown
words."Whenwewitnesssomeeventwewantto
remember,wemakeaverbaldescriptionoftheeventand
thenrememberourverbalization.Uponrecallwerecreate
bysecondaryelaborationthedetailsthatseemconsistent
withtheparticularverbalrecodingwehappentohave
made.ThewellknownexperimentbyCarmichael,
Hogan,andWalter(3)ontheinfluencethatnameshave
ontherecallofvisualfiguresisonedemonstrationofthe
process.

Theinaccuracyofthetestimonyofeyewitnessesiswell
knowninlegalpsychology,butthedistortionsof
testimonyarenotrandomtheyfollownaturallyfromthe
particularrecodingthatthewitnessused,andthe
particularrecodingheuseddependsuponhiswholelife
history.Ourlanguageistremendouslyusefulforrepackagingmaterialintoafewchunksrichin
information.Isuspectthatimageryisaformofrecoding,too,butimagesseemmuchhardertogetat
operationallyandtostudyexperimentallythanthemoresymbolickindsofrecoding.

Itseemsprobablethatevenmemorizationcanbestudiedintheseterms.Theprocessofmemorizing
maybesimplytheformationofchunks,orgroupsofitemsthatgotogether,untiltherearefewenough
chunkssothatwecanrecallalltheitems.TheworkbyBousfieldandCohen(2)ontheoccurrenceof
clusteringintherecallofwordsisespeciallyinterestinginthisrespect.

Summary

IhavecometotheendofthedatathatIwantedtopresent,soIwouldlikenowtomakesome
summarizingremarks.

First,thespanofabsolutejudgmentandthespanofimmediatememoryimposeseverelimitationson
theamountofinformationthatweareabletoreceive,process,andremember.Byorganizingthe
stimulusinputsimultaneouslyintoseveraldimensionsandsuccessivelyintoasequenceofchunks,we
managetobreak(oratleaststretch)thisinformationalbottleneck.

Second,theprocessofrecodingisaveryimportantoneinhumanpsychologyanddeservesmuch
moreexplicitattentionthanithasreceived.Inparticular,thekindoflinguisticrecodingthatpeopledo
seemstometobetheverylifebloodofthethoughtprocesses.Recodingproceduresareaconstant
concerntoclinicians,socialpsycholo[p.96]gists,linguists,andanthropologistsandyet,probably
becauserecodingislessaccessibletoexperimentalmanipulationthannonsensesyllablesorTmazes,
thetraditionalexperimentalpsychologisthascontributedlittleornothingtotheiranalysis.
Nevertheless,experimentaltechniquescanbeused,methodsofrecodingcanbespecified,behavioral
indicantscanbefound.AndIanticipatethatwewillfindaveryorderlysetofrelationsdescribing
whatnowseemsanunchartedwildernessofindividualdifferences.

Third,theconceptsandmeasuresprovidedbythetheoryofinformationprovideaquantitativewayof
gettingatsomeofthesequestions.Thetheoryprovidesuswithayardstickforcalibratingourstimulus
materialsandformeasuringtheperformanceofoursubjects.IntheinterestsofcommunicationIhave
suppressedthetechnicaldetailsofinformationmeasurementandhavetriedtoexpresstheideasin
morefamiliartermsIhopethisparaphrasewillnotleadyoutothinktheyarenotusefulinresearch.
Informationalconceptshavealreadyprovedvaluableinthestudyofdiscriminationandoflanguage
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theypromiseagreatdealinthestudyoflearningandmemoryandithasevenbeenproposedthat
theycanbeusefulinthestudyofconceptformation.Alotofquestionsthatseemedfruitlesstwentyor
thirtyyearsagomaynowbeworthanotherlook.Infact,Ifeelthatmystoryheremuststopjustasit
beginstogetreallyinteresting.

Andfinally,whataboutthemagicalnumberseven?Whataboutthesevenwondersoftheworld,the
sevenseas,thesevendeadlysins,thesevendaughtersofAtlasinthePleiades,thesevenagesofman,
thesevenlevelsofhell,thesevenprimarycolors,thesevennotesofthemusicalscale,andtheseven
daysoftheweek?Whataboutthesevenpointratingscale,thesevencategoriesforabsolute
judgment,thesevenobjectsinthespanofattention,andthesevendigitsinthespanofimmediate
memory?ForthepresentIproposetowithholdjudgment.Perhapsthereissomethingdeepand
profoundbehindallthesesevens,somethingjustcallingoutforustodiscoverit.ButIsuspectthatit
isonlyapernicious,Pythagoreancoincidence.

Footnotes

[1]ThispaperwasfirstreadasanInvitedAddressbeforetheEasternPsychologicalAssociationin
PhiladelphiaonApril15,1955.PreparationofthepaperwassupportedbytheHarvardPsycho
AcousticLaboratoryunderContractN5ori76betweenHarvardUniversityandtheOfficeofNaval
Research,U.S.Navy(ProjectNR142201,ReportPNR174).Reproductionforanypurposeofthe
U.S.Governmentispermitted.

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(ReceivedMay4,1955)

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