Seven, Plus or Minus Two – The “Magical” Power of Choice

In his seminal work, also one of the most highly cited papers in psychology, George A. Miller argues that the number of objects an average human can hold in working memory is 7 ± 2. First published in 1956, Miller discusses two reasons for this “magical” number of 7.

First, the effectiveness of people to distinguish between choices/alternatives that vary on one dimension is around 4 to 8, beyond which the performance declines. Second, he observed that memory span of young adults is approximately 7 items, beyond which the performance is weak. Particularly, I was struck by the memory span reason. Just to humor myself, I tried recalling the brands that I’m aware of in some product categories that I use daily. Guess what, I could not get past 6 in most cases! Try it out, am sure it’ll be fun.

And he makes an interesting observation about the “magical” aspect of 7. He wonders if it has anything to do with the Seven Wonders of the World, the seven seas, the seven deadly sins, the seven daughters of Atlas in the Pleiades, the seven ages of man, the seven levels of hell, the seven primary colors, the seven notes of the musical scale, and the seven days of the week! Well, it may be the strangest coincidence ever, but intriguing nevertheless.

If the choices that the average human mind can handle are limited, why then do grocery stores today carry an average of 35,000 products, Wal-Mart provide an average of 100,000 products, and Match.com provide over 15 million date possibilities? This is one of the many interesting thoughts discussed in the recently released book – “The Art of Choosing” by Sheena Iyengar. A Professor at the Columbia Business School and the author of the classic “jam study” Iyengar traverses through various disciplines such as psychology, marketing, economics, public policy, medicine, and finance, and weaves together a rich and fascinating survey of current and past research on the subject of choices.

Using personal anecdotes and cultural observations, Iyengar tackles some important questions on choices and how they impact our lives. How & why is choice powerful? Are the choices we make more similar or more different from each other? How important are choices to us in our daily lives? Is there a connection between who we are and what we choose? What roles do others play in our choice decisions, and should they have a role? The book reviews a wide variety of studies that poses interesting questions over conclusive statements. This provides the reader with information and opportunity to ponder and reflect on the choices we make. In all, “The Art of Choosing” raises thought-provoking and profound issues that shed light on why we make the personal choices we do, and how we reap the benefits or consequences as a result of our choices.

Check out her TED talk here.

Check out her presentation at the Knowledge @ Wharton studio here.

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