[Paleopsych] APA: How Much Can Your Mind Keep Track Of?
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American Psychological Society - How Much Can Your Mind Keep Track Of?
March 8, 2005
For Immediate Release
Download the Report PDF
Contact: Graeme Halford
gsh at psy.uq.edu.au
Cooking shows on TV usually give a Web address where you can find,
read, and print out the recipe of the dish created on that day's show.
The reason is obvious: It's too hard to just follow along with what
the chef is doing, let alone remember it all. There are too many
directions and ingredients -- too many variables and steps in the
process to keep track of quickly.
New research shows why it doesn't take much for a new problem or an
unfamiliar task to tax our thinking. According to University of
Queensland cognitive science researchers Graeme S. Halford, Rosemary
Baker, Julie E. McCredden and John D. Bain of Griffith University, the
number of individual variables we can mentally handle while trying to
solve a problem (like baking a lemon meringue pie) is relatively
small: Four variables are difficult; five are nearly impossible.
Their report, "How Many Variables Can Humans Process?" is published in
the January 2005 issue of Psychological Science, a journal of the
American Psychological Society.
It's difficult to measure the limits of processing capacity because
most people automatically use problem solving skills to break down
large complex problems into small, manageable "chunks." A baker, for
example, will treat "cream butter, sugar and egg together" as a single
chunk -- a single step in the process -- rather than thinking of each
ingredient separately. Likewise she won't think, "break egg one into
bowl, break egg two into bowl." She'll just think, "add all of the
To keep test subjects from breaking down problems into bite-size
chunks, researchers needed to create problems that they weren't
familiar with. In their experiment, 30 academics were presented with
incomplete verbal descriptions of statistical interactions between
fictitious variables, with an accompanying set of graphs that
represented the interactions. The interactions varied in complexity --
involving as few as two variables up to as many as five. The
participants were timed as they attempted to complete the given
sentences to correctly describe the interactions the graphs were
showing. After each problem, they also indicated how confident they
were of their solutions.
The researchers found that, as the problems got more complex,
participants performed less well and were less confident. They were
significantly less able to accurately solve the problems involving
four-way interactions than the ones involving three-way interactions,
and they were (not surprisingly) less confident of their solutions.
And five-way interactions? Forget it. Their performance was no better
After the four- and five-way interactions, participants said things
like, "I kept losing information," and "I just lost track."
Halford et al concluded from these results that people -- academics
accustomed to interpreting the type of data used in the experiment
problems -- cannot process more than four variables at a time.
Recognizing these human limitations can make a difference when
designing high-stress work environments--such as air-traffic control
centers--where employees must keep in mind several variables all at
Download the article. For more information, contact Graeme Halford
at gsh at psy.uq.edu.au.
Psychological Science is ranked among the top 10 general psychology
journals for impact by the Institute for Scientific Information. The
American Psychological Society represents psychologists advocating
science-based research in the public's interest.
12. mailto:gsh at psy.uq.edu.au
14. mailto:gsh at psy.uq.edu.au
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