[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?

News Release

    March 8, 2005
    For Immediate Release
    [11]Download the Report PDF
    Contact: Graeme Halford
    [12]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
    than chance.

    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

    [13]Download the article. For more information, contact Graeme Halford
    at [14]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.


   11. http://www.psychologicalscience.org/pdf/ps/mind_variables.pdf
   12. mailto:gsh at psy.uq.edu.au
   13. http://www.psychologicalscience.org/pdf/ps/mind_variables.pdf
   14. mailto:gsh at psy.uq.edu.au

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