Dear Professor Miller,
The director of the technical writing group which I serve as editor has issued an edict that lists and procedures in our printed and screen-displayed documentation should not exceed seven, or maybe nine at the most, items. This is of course a silly rule, whatever its origin, but I think that its source in this case is a fading memory of a third-hand report of a bad reading of your classic 1956 paper.
Of course you are in no way responsible for the misreadings of your paper, and the silly things done in its name, but I hope you can help my organization, at least, climb back out of the pit it has dug for itself, using your paper as its shovel. I have seen somewhere a quotation from you, or a paraphrase of your words, in which you deplore the strange conclusions that some have drawn from your paper, and express your dismay over all the half-baked rules that people have promulgated, citing it as their authority.
In my attempt to get our director to rescind his bad rule, I would like to be able to quote your very words against him; would you tell me where I might find such words? Or, if what you've said in the past is not on record, could I induce you to say now that nothing in your paper should be taken as warrant for asking Moses to discard at least one, and preferably three, of the Commandments?
With my thanks,
Mark Halpern Siebel Systems
Sr Technical Editor 1900 Powell Street
firstname.lastname@example.org Emeryville, CA 94608
From: George Miller[SMTP:geo@clarity.Princeton.EDU]
Sent: Thursday, July 30, 1998 1:03 PM
To: Mark Halpern
Subject: Re: citation for your disclaimer
Many years ago landscape architects used my +/-7 paper as a basis to pass local laws restricting the number of items on a billboard. It was funded by the big motel chains; if you run a mom-and-pop motel you have to put a lot of information on your sign, but if you have a franchise everybody knows you have hot and cold running water, color television, free breakfasts, etc. The restriction on billboard content was driving the small motels out of business.
The same argument was used in the Lady Bird Johnson Act to prohibit billboards
within X feet of highways, and the billboard industry (a strange group that
deserves an essay of its own) was hurting. They hired a man to travel around
from town to town trying to refute the claims that more than 7 items of information
could cause accidents. The man's wife did not like her husband being constantly
on the road, so she asked him about it. He told her that the root of his trouble
was some damn Harvard professor who wrote a paper about 7 bits of information.
She, being herself a psychologist, said that she did not
think that that was what Professor Miller's paper said.
Armed with this insight, he looked me up and told me the whole story about my career, unknown to me, in the billboard industry. There was much more to it than I have outlined here, and I was shocked. So shocked that I wrote a long letter trying to set the record straight. The letter was published in the monthly journal of the billboard industry and that was the end of it. Unfortunately, I no longer have a copy of the letter and I don't recall the name of the journal (this was all back in the early 70s), so I cannot quote to you its contents. But the point was that 7 was a limit for the discrimination of unidimensional stimuli (pitches, loudnesses, brightnesses, etc.) and also a limit for immediate recall, neither of which has anything to do with a person's capacity to comprehend printed text.
If you want to quote the original article, it is on line and you can find a pointer to it at www.cogsci.princeton.edu/~wn. But if that is too time consuming--yes, you are right: nothing in my paper warrants asking Moses to discard any of the ten commandments.
Dear Professor Miller,
Thank you for your full and prompt reply; just what I was hoping for. Armed with your words, I may be able to convince my boss that your paper does not support the notion that if a procedure has fourteen steps, you have to divide it arbitrarily into two procedures, each meaningless in itself.
In being able to quote you against his misinterpretation of your work, I feel like Woody Allen in that movie where he gets into an argument with a pretentious know-it-all about some thesis of Marshall McLuhan's, and has the pleasure of bringing into the scene the real McLuhan, who tells the know-it-all that's he's completely wrong, and Allen is right.