#20 on the Top 20 Psychologists of the 20th Century – George A. Miller

The biggest takeaway from George A. Miller is that while we are limited in the amount of information we can take in, and limited in the duration of time that we can store that information, we can increase the overall amount of information by chunking groups of items together. This is one of the pillars of learning and a powerful tool when used consciously.

George A. Miller is number 20 on the Top Psychologists of the Twentieth Century, and while I was not familiar with the name, I was familiar with the research. I first learned about the 7 item limit of our short term memory in elementary school. But they never taught me the more important principle of chunking – or recoding. Recoding is the idea that you can nest pieces of information together in groups and hold those groups in your short term memory. So while you are still limited to seven pieces of information (plus or minus two) you have in effect hacked the system to hold much more. We are all familiar with this idea, you can hold your telephone number and your address in mind simultaneously, while each of those items is longer than 7 “bits”.

It is remarkable that given Miller’s impact on the landscape of science – and “discovering” such a powerful and practical tool as chunking – I can hardly find anything out about the man himself. It doesn’t help that he has a common name – and it is shared with the successful director of Mad Max. Miller’s books do not seem popular today, as evidenced by the most bare Amazon page I have seen.

After the notable achievement that was “The Magic Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two”, Miller went on to do important work in Psycholinguistics with Noam Chomsky. As well as co-found the Harvard Center for Cognitive Studies, which “institutionalized the revolution and launched the field of cognitive science. Today the study of the human mind is among the most exciting frontiers of science. Its practical applications include the design of software, the diagnosis of neurological disease, and the formation of public policy, and its theories have revolutionized our understanding of ancient problems such as consciousness, free will, and human nature.” 1

Over time, Miller’s interests turned away from the Markov process on which Shannon’s analysis of language was based – and he turned toward Chomsky and the Syntactic Theory. The study of linguistics which was having its own revolution. I want to do more reading around this area because, as Miller state’s, “that language must be a key element of any theory of psychology because it is a means of making private or internal psychological phenomena observable, measurable, and public.”2

The key strategic decision Miller made was to break away from the popular Behavioristic framework of the day. This led to the proposal to switch from a stimulus response view of the world to what they labeled “TOTE” (test, operate, test, exit). This reminds me of Boyd’s OODA (Observe, Orient, Decide, Act) loop. This structure is more dynamic and allows for productive interaction with the wicked world of complexity.

Miller wrote a history of the “Cognitive Revolutions”. It is elegant and to the point at just 3 pages. It is frustrating trying to get a sense of the man from my google searches. I want to know more about him – but perhaps that is just something I have been classically conditioned to expect in our story-saturated culture. He appears to have led an interesting life – attending University of Alabama in the 40s and then Harvard for his Ph.D. He served in the Army Signal Corps during WWII.

The closest I was able to get to a sense of who he was came from reading a collection of memories from former students and colleagues. Like much of Miller’s own writing, this snippet reflects the brevity with which they communicate. “George Miller taught me how to make hollandaise. In the mid-1970s, George was a professor at Rockefeller University, where I was a graduate student in philosophy. George lived in Princeton, but had an apartment in RU’s faculty and student housing building where he stayed during the week. As a graduate student, I was always hungry and looking for a meal. George invited me to dinner at his place. He served nice wine, steak, and asparagus with hollandaise.” 3

How hard did you go?

At the end of a Nike+ training workout you are asked, “how hard was that for you?” Another way of asking the question might be – how much effort did you put in?

I was doing exercises measured in duration – so if I wanted to go harder, I simply needed to go faster. This is one of the ideas behind Crossfit. The exercise could be as simple as 300 pushups – not difficult for world’s most elite athletes. But competing against each other as fast as you can – it becomes more difficult.

So “how hard was that for you”? You get to slide a bar between 1-10. When I slide this bar, I often want to stop on 7. And then I hear the voice of our first realtor. When we would go visit homes, she would say “rate the house on a scale of 1-10 but you can’t use 7”. 

So I push the bar up to 8. And then I think – why is this not at a 10? Why am I not giving my max effort? 

The answer is ego. The answer to many problems is usually ego. We seek self-preservation over growth. We want to think, “that was easy and I could have gone way harder”. Even though we were just making strange noises a few seconds ago. 

I don’t think that putting 7 or 8 is wrong – I just wonder if it is right? What would happen if you had to slide a scale at the beginning of the workout that asked, how much effort are you about to put in? Would we say 8? Should we seek 10?

On Becoming a ‘No’ Person

On the desk of a senior person in my company there was a sign – it was the first thing you saw when you walked in – it said one word, “NO”. This always disturbed me. It made me not want to be in the room. It made me feel like this person either didn’t care about finding solutions or was too overwhelmed to try. And neither seemed like a good opening for a conversation around work. But, she was more senior than me – had a good track record of success and I was in my 20s and new to the organization.
I think about that “NO” sign often – is it a good idea to have that approach towards life – or a bad idea?

The idea of saying “no” falls squarely into the realm of the big five personality trait agreeableness. The other four are openness, conscientiousness, neuroticism and extroversion. There is no right or wrong personality – unless your particular culture happens to reward some particular end of the spectrum. In our culture, research shows that being agreeable can negatively affect your chances of success in the workplace, both in terms of intrinsic happiness and extrinsic rewards. 

Why would this be the case? Agreeable people are characterized by “compassion, friendliness, politeness and empathy. People high in this trait can be described as ‘nice’; they tend to make good friends, are good listeners and good team players.” https://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-04-18/agreeable-employees-earn-less-work-harder-good-for-companies/9670238

This seems like the perfect person to have on a team! But alas, it takes more than being agreeable to succeed. The economy is not run on agreement, but on success. In order to reach objectives and targets the right answer must be reached – not simply a consensus amongst a team. 

I think of it like a raft lost at sea. Camaraderie and morale are important, but alone are worthless. The goal is to get rescued or find land. Any actions that do not lead to those outcomes create failure. 

So if you find yourself falling in with the crowd that keeps missing their objectives, it might be time to become more assertive. Stand up for what you believe in and be able to say no. Here is one definition of assertiveness that I like, “having the ability to confidently communicate what you want or need while also respecting the needs of others”. https://www.masterclass.com/articles/how-to-be-assertive

Here are some pointers on how to become more assertive: https://www.masterclass.com/articles/how-to-be-assertive

For me, this can be married well with the “5 Second Rule” from Mel Robbins. Disclaimer: I have not actually read the book – but I assume the idea is that you have 5 seconds to take action, and I like thinking about it that way. Imagine you are in a meeting and you hear something you do not agree with. There is a small window of opportunity. A 5 second time has started – either you speak up and exercise your ability to not be agreeable or you let the moment pass and have a mountain to climb later.