George Armitage Miller: biography of a pioneer in cognitive psychology

George Armitage Miller: biography of a pioneer in cognitive psychology

George A. Miller (1920-2012) was an American psychologist who contributed very relevant knowledge to psychology and cognitive neurosciences. Among other things, he analysed how human beings process the information we receive, and was the first to argue that our memory has the capacity to store up to seven differential elements per moment.

Next we will see a biography of George A. Miller , as well as some of his main 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 superior degree in history and speech, and a year later, in 1941, he obtained a master’s degree in the same field. 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 with the US Army Signal Corps during World War II. In fact, in 1943, Miller conducted military research related to the intelligibility of speech and sound; subjects that he transferred years later in his studies on psycholinguistics.

He later taught and researched at the same university, as well as at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Rockefeller University. Years later, in 1979, he began his academic activities at Princeton University, where he was recognized as Professor Emeritus in 1990.

He was also a member of the prestigious American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the National Academy of Sciences. He also co-founded (with Jerome S. Bruner) the Center for Cognitive Studies at Harvard 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 Exceptional Life Contribution to Psychology award from the American Psychological Association (APA).

From the behaviorist paradigm to cognitive psychology

During the years when George A. Miller was a researcher in psychology (between 1920 and 1950), the behavioralist paradigm was on the rise. One of the things behaviorism argued 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 these are states and operations that cannot be directly observed.

Miller, on the other hand, argued that the behavioralist 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 mind’s ability to establish channels of information processing . From the research he carried out, 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 could retain between five and nine elements in the immediate memory.

With this he developed one of his greatest proposals: short-term memory in human beings is not unlimited, but 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 .

This 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 a time (plus or minus 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 by means of a hidden or very fast glance.

Impact on Psychology

Miller’s proposals significantly impacted subsequent research in cognitive psychology, which eventually led to the development and validation of psychometric tests for the study of memory and other cognitive processes.

As part of his activities within the latter institution, Miller collaborated with the US Army Signal Corps during World War II.
In fact, in 1943, Miller conducted military research related to the intelligibility of speech and sound; subjects that he transferred years later in his studies on psycholinguistics.

He later taught and researched at the same university, as well as at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Rockefeller University.
Years later, in 1979, he began his academic activities at Princeton University, where he was recognized as Professor Emeritus in 1990.

He was also a member of the prestigious American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the National Academy of Sciences.
He also co-founded (with Jerome S. Bruner) the Center for Cognitive Studies at Harvard 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 Exceptional Life Contribution to Psychology award from the American Psychological Association (APA).

From the behaviorist paradigm to cognitive psychology

During the years when George A. Miller was a researcher in psychology (between 1920 and 1950), the behavioralist paradigm was on the rise. One of the things behaviorism argued 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 these are states and operations that cannot be directly observed.

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