Secret to keeping audience attention: Myth of the Magic# 7 in audience memory.

I have been doing some research on the Magic #7 and people’s ability to remember. It has been taken as fact that Miller’s Magic# 7 was fact. “The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information” is one of the most highly cited papers in cognitive psychology regarding the channel capacity for learning and memory.. It was published in 1956 by the cognitive psychologist George A. Miller of Princeton University‘s Department of Psychology. The rule states that the number of objects of information an average human can hold in working memory  is 7 ± 2. This is frequently referred to as Miller’s Law  of Communication and memory. New research now says that the Law of the Magic # 7 over estimate the capacity of short-term Memory. Dr Jeanne Farrington, 2010 says, ” the more accurate number is only 4-5 chunks of new information per person.”  The abstract of the research is  in the Performance Improvement Quarterly says:

“For over 50 years, seven plus or minus two has been a commonly used guideline for gauging how many chunks of new information should be presented at one time in learning and performance situations. Often cited as the limit of working memory, this guideline was created as a result of misinterpreting an article by Miller (1956). More recent studies suggest that the limit for working memory is more like three, and sometimes four, with various factors influencing the capacity of an individual’s working memory. Given too much novel information at one time, learners and performers can be derailed by cognitive overload. Instructional designers and performance consultants can adjust the presentation of new information to manage intrinsic, extraneous, and germane cognitive load. This column provides suggestions about how to reduce cognitive overload to improve learning and performance”.

“Chunking,” in psychology, is phenomenon whereby individuals group responses when performing a memory task. Tests where individuals can illustrate “chunking” commonly include serial and free recall, as these both require the individual to reproduce items that he or she had previously been designated to study. Items generally include words, syllables, digits/numbers, or lists of letters. Presumably, individuals that exhibit the “chunking” structure in their responses are forming clusters of responses based on the items’ semantic relatedness or perceptual features. It is believed that the assimilation of different items according to their properties occurs due to individuals’ creating higher order cognitive representations of the items on the list that are more easily remember than individual items. Representations of this order are highly subjective, as they depend critically on the individual’s perception of the features of the items position in their semantic network. Size of these groups generally include anywhere between two and six items that had previously been studied. “Chunking” maintains a number of characteristics when observed in recall tasks.

The first is that, when individuals incorrectly recall an item in a serial recall task, it tends to come from an item that they placed in the same grouping. That is, individuals that employ this strategy to recall will commonly misplace items according to their grouping. Since one must recall items in the order they were presented during the serial recall task, items that are even one position out of place are deemed incorrect. Therefore, according to how many items an individual breaks the list into, misplacement of the item will be limited to within the confine of the size of the group.

Another feature of the “chunking” effect is that a modality effect is present. That is, the mechanism used to convey the list of items to the individual has an impact on how much “chunking” occurs. Experimentally, it has been found that auditory presentation results in a larger amount of grouping in the responses of individual, as compared to visual presentation.

A significant result of the use of the “chunking” strategy is that probability of recall is greater for individuals that employ it. As stated above, the grouping of the responses occurs as individuals place them into categories according to their inter-relatedness based on semantic and perceptual properties. As shown through various studies, the groups produced via this strategy are easier for an individual to recall and maintain in memory during study and testing. Therefore, when “chunking” is evident in recall tasks, one can expect a higher proportion of correct recalls.

The most convincing evidence for the existence of “chunking” in individuals’ responses during recall tasks is illustrated in the analysis of response times. When looking at this aspect of the test/response phase of a recall task, one observes response time as a function of output position. Therefore, this analysis allows for the measurement of the process of recall in each task participant. The curves illustrates that each item in a cluster typically requires about the same amount of time to recall. This can be observed as strings of items where the response times are both similar, as well as very rapid. However, one can also see in these response time curves that the time between the “chunks” follows a different trend entirely. Items or periods of output where the individual is not recalling items that belong to a group require a significantly larger amount of time. Therefore, prior to the beginning and end of recall of a group of items in a “chunk,” there is a jump in the reponse time in the curve.


2 thoughts on “Secret to keeping audience attention: Myth of the Magic# 7 in audience memory.”

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