Chunking is the process of grouping small pieces of similar information together into a meaningful whole. The theory of chunking limits says that humans can only group seven or fewer things in this way. A learning from this is that we should create our communications with this in mind.Summary by The World of Work Project
Chunking and Chunking Limits
Chunking is the psychological process of grouping similar pieces of information together into a meaningful whole. Humans do this to manage information when working and learning. They do this because it is easier to remember a single, high level, clustered group than each of its multiple components. Morse code is a great example of chunking in action. If you know Morse code you can remember a huge sequence of dots and dashes by simply remembering the letter that they relate to.
The Chunking Limit is the names given to the fact that humans can only “chunk” a certain number of similar pieces of information together in their memory. Work has been done to assess how many pieces of information humans can typically chunk together. The results suggest that it’s about seven (plus or minus two). What this means is that if people are asked to chunk more than seven things together, that they’ll probably not be able to do so.
Why Do We Care?
The chunking limit is relevant in the world of work specifically when we look at communicating or training.
The lesson we learn from the chunking limit is that we should try and group similar information together when communicating. We should do this to make what we are communicating more memorable. However, we should never group more than seven similar types of information together as people won’t remember them. To be safe, we should probably never group more than five similar ideas together.
The key take away here for people is probably that if you end up with more than five points on a presentation slide, you should probably think about making it into two slides instead…
Interestingly, as humans it’s not just information that we have a limited ability to process. We also have a limit on how many social relationships we can maintain and manage. This is described by Dunbar’s Number.
To learn more broadly about communication, consider reading our 10 Tips for Effective Presentations. You might also enjoy our posts on The 7 Cs of Communication, Effective Listening, the Rhetorical Triangle, Feedback and tone of voice and body language.
Communication has an important role to play in motivation, which is a key skill for leaders and managers. You might enjoy learning more about motivation in our podcast introducing the topic:
The World of Work Project View
We don’t have much to add. Chunking and chunking limits are important for communication theory (e.g. data compression programs use chunking), but provide only one really practical lesson for individuals work, which is that we need to keep our messages simple so that people will understand and remember them.
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This post is based on original work by George A Miller. You can read more in his important and hugely sited article, “The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information”, which you can purchase here.
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Carrier, J. (2019). Chunking and Chunking Limits: How We Group Information. Retrieved [insert date] from The World of Work Project: https://worldofwork.io/2019/06/chunking-and-chunking-limits/