Why Seven is the Magic Number

n May 2015 I wrote a blog Emotional Intelligence and the Ring of Gyges which discussed two seminars about Positive Psychology that I attended. One takeaway from the talk was that you should focus on your strengths and not your weaknesses. This is a standard trope of the Positive Psychology pack along with the advice that you could learn about your strengths doing either R2 Strengths or a VIA inventory. R2 Strengths ranks 60 characteristics and costs a minimum of £20 while VIA ranks 24 and is free. Those who know me will not be surprised to learn I chose the latter.

The VIA Inventory said my three strongest strengths were Love of learning, Perseverance and Judgment while at the bottom were Forgiveness, Humility, and Spirituality. Those who know me would not be surprised and knowing that I have high Politician and Engineer components in my temperament this list was not unexpected. Again however the same criticism that I applied in my original blog still holds: where is the Hustler? In the VIA list there is no place for shrewdness, flexibility, commercial acumen, and entrepreneurship. All these are strengths of the Hustler component are not on the VIA 24 item list. Neither do they make the R2 list of 60 strengths!!

However another criticism now raises its head. When confronted with a list of 24 items, let alone 60, I just turn off. This is just too much for the poor manager or salesperson to learn. In practical terms seven is the maximum number that should be in a list, which is why I like the 7MTF/Humm with its seven components. Whenever I see a list such as the 10 characteristics of the successful leader I give in.

Professor George A. Miller’s great paper The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information published in 1956 is as relevant today as it was over 50 years ago. The opening paragraph still resonates:

“My problem is that I have been persecuted by an integer. For seven years this number has followed me around, has intruded in my most private data, and has assaulted me from the pages of our most public journals. This number assumes a variety of disguises, being sometimes a little larger and sometimes a little smaller than usual, but never changing so much as to be unrecognizable. The persistence with which this number plagues me is far more than a random accident. There is, to quote a famous senator, a design behind it, some pattern governing its appearances. Either there really is something unusual about the number or else I am suffering from delusions of persecution.”

Seven is for most people the limit of short term memory and if you are going to develop a practical system that is the maximum number of items should have. It is why telephone numbers should be seven digits long. It is why children learn the days of the week quickly but take much longer to learn the months.


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