This researcher helped the cognitivist paradigm to prosper, replacing behaviorism.
George A. Miller (1920-2012) was an American psychologist who contributed highly relevant knowledge to psychology and cognitive neurosciences. Among other things, he analyzed how human beings process the information we receive, and he was the first to argue that our memory has the capacity to store up to seven differential elements per moment.
Here is a biography of George A. Miller, as well as some of his major contributions to cognitive psychology.
George A. Miller: Biography of a Cognitive Psychologist
George Armitage Miller, better known as George A. Miller, was born on February 3, 1920 in Charleston, United States. In 1940 he received a higher degree in history and discourse, and a year later, in 1941, he obtained a master’s degree in the same area. Both degrees were part of the University of Alabama program.
Finally in 1946 he obtained a doctorate in psychology from Harvard University.
As part of his activities within the latter institution, Miller collaborated in the communication corps of the United States Army (Army Signal Corps) during the Second World War. In fact, in the year 1943, Miller conducted a military investigation related to the intelligibility of speech and sound; topics that he transferred years later in his studies on psycholinguistics.
Subsequently, he served as a teacher and researcher at the same university, as well as at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Rockefeller University. Years later, in 1979, he began academic activities at Princeton University, where he was recognized as Emeritus Professor in 1990.
Likewise, he was a member of the prestigious American Academy of Arts and Sciences and of the National Academy of Sciences. He also co-founded (along with Jerome S. Bruner) the Harvard Center for Cognitive Studies in 1960, and participated in the establishment of the Princeton Cognitive Science Laboratory in 1986.
Thanks to his theories on short-term memory, Miller is recognized as one of the founders of cognitive science and cognitive neuroscience. He also made relevant contributions to psycholinguistics and human communication studies, which earned him the Outstanding Lifetime Contribution for Psychology award from the American Psychological Association (APA).
From the behavioral paradigm to cognitive psychology
During George A. Miller’s years as a researcher in psychology (between 1920 and 1950), the behaviorist paradigm was on the rise. One of the things that behaviorism held was that the mind could not be studied scientifically, since it was not an entity whose reality was observable.
In other words, for behaviorism, there was no possibility of scientifically studying mental processes, because they are states and operations that cannot be observed directly.
Miller, by contrast, argued that the behaviorist paradigm could be very limiting. From his perspective, mental phenomena could indeed constitute a legitimate object of study for empirical research in psychology.
Short-term memory studies
Miller was interested in measuring the ability of the mind to establish information processing channels. From the research he conducted, he realized that people could reliably associate between four and ten continuous stimuli.
For example noises, line lengths or a series of points. People could quickly identify the stimulus as long as there were seven or fewer, and they could retain between five and nine items in immediate memory.
With this he developed one of his greatest proposals: short-term memory in humans is not unlimited, but rather has the general capacity to store up to seven pieces of information. Likewise, this capacity can be modified according to how subsequent processes are carried out, such as the recoding of information.
The above is recognized to this day as one of the basic assumptions of information processing, precisely because it held that human memory can only efficiently capture a total of seven units at the same time (more or less two additional pieces of information) .
For example, the latter occurs when we have to distinguish between different sounds, or when we have to perceive an object through a hidden or very fast gaze.
Impact on psychology
Miller’s proposals had an important impact on subsequent research in cognitive psychology, which finally led to the development and validation of psychometric tests for the study of memory and other cognitive processes.
Likewise, it allowed us to generalize the idea that it is important to limit the number of elements that are presented to a person when we want them to retain certain information (for example, the digits of a number or the amount of stimuli that make up a presentation, etc.).
Some of the most important works of George A. Miller are Language and Communication , 1951; Plans and structure of conduct , 1957; and The Magic Number Seven, More or Less Two: Some Limitations in Our Information Processing Ability, from 1956, which is perhaps the work that marked his beginnings as a prestigious cognitive psychologist.
- Doorey, M. (2018). George A. Miller. Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved August 29, 2018.Available at https://www.britannica.com/biography/George-A-Miller.
- Pinker, S. (2012). George A. Miller (1920-2012). Obituaries. American Psychological Association. Retrieved August 29, 2018.Available at http://stevenpinker.com/files/pinker/files/miller_obituary.pdf.