Short Term Memory
by Saul McLeod published 2009
Short term memory has three key aspects:
1. limited capacity (only about 7 items can be stored at a time)
2. limited duration (storage is very fragile and information can be lost with distraction or passage of time)
3. encoding (primarily acoustic, even translating visual information into sounds).
There are two ways in which capacity is tested, one being span, the other being recency effect.
Miller’s (1956) Magic number 7 (plus or minus two) provides evidence for the capacity of short term memory. Most adults can store between 5 and 9 items in their short-term memory. This idea was put forward by Miller (1956) and he called it the magic number 7. He though that short term memory could hold 7 (plus or minus 2 items) because it only had a certain number of “slots” in which items could be stored.
However, Miller didn’t specify the amount of information that can be held in each slot. Indeed, if we can “chunk” information together we can store a lot more information in our short term memory.
Miller’s theory is supported by evidence from various studies, such as Jacobs (1887). He used the digit span test with every letter in the alphabet and numbers apart from “w” and “7” because they had two syllables. He found out that people find it easier to recall numbers rather than letters. The average span for letters was 7.3 and for numbers it was 9.3.
The duration of short term memory seems to be between 15 and 30 seconds, according to Atkinson and Shiffrin (1971). Items can be kept in short term memory by repeating them verbally (acoustic encoding), a process known as rehearsal.
Using a technique called the Brown-Peterson technique which prevents the possibility of retrieval by having participants count backwards in 3s, Peterson and Peterson (1959) showed that the longer the delay, the less information is recalled. The rapid loss of information from memory when rehearsal is prevented is taken as an indication of short term memory having a limited duration.
Baddeley and Hitch (1974) have developed an alternative model of short-term memory which they call working memory.
Atkinson, R. C., & Shiffrin, R. M. (1971). The control processes of short-term memory. Institute for Mathematical Studies in the Social Sciences, Stanford University.
Baddeley, A.D., & Hitch, G. (1974). Working memory. In G.H. Bower (Ed.), The psychology of learning and motivation: Advances in research and theory (Vol. 8, pp. 47–89). New York: Academic Press.
Miller, G. (1956). The magical number seven, plus or minus two: Some limits on our capacity for processing information. The psychological review, 63, 81-97.
Peterson, L. R., & Peterson, M. J. (1959). Short-term retention of individual verbal items. Journal of experimental psychology, 58(3), 193-198.
How to cite this article:
McLeod, S. A. (2009). . Retrieved from