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Short Term Memory and The Power of Limited Thinking

Article:  The Power of Limited Thinking

Author:  Bruce Bower

Source:  Science News, Vol. 152, No. 21 (Nov. 22, 1997), pages 334-335.

Published by: Society for Science & the Public.

Stable URL:

My copy was downloaded on October 9, 2014.



My Precis

In the real world, small samples of information that fit with and within information we already possess, seem to give us the best chance of making accurate decisions.



My Precis Expanded (a summary of the original article):

As a newborn infant, we immediately begin to affect regular habits in order to survive. Learning to recognize action and reaction, movement and sound, helps us to quickly and consistently learn. As we begin to recognize meaning in a statement we begin to combine statements where one makes the other true. How obvious a statement is will depend on education and background.

Our short-term memories hold only a very limited number of “pieces” of information at one time, usually no more than six or eight. So, when a variable changes (when something happens), it amplifies the constants (and our understanding) of the world. Positively correlated events and a limited short-term working memory work together to help us to learn, especially when we are children and learning a first (native) language. An ability to detect positive correlations may help us to detect irregularities, even if we sometimes detect false correlations or set off false alarms.

In studies, inaccurate assumptions or perceptions interfere with our ability to connect events that really do go together and even scientists can overestimate significant relationships when they are dealing with small representative groups. There is a gamblers fallacy that states that a run of something (good or bad) will correct itself and that the odds will eventually even up. However, any random sequence, with the same variables, has an equal chance of being repeated. The ability to recognize positive correlations rises as working memory capacity declines. One study selected groups on the basis of their working memory capacity and found that the high capacity group chose the fewest false correlations but also the fewest positive correlations.

When looking at real world situations, small samples seem to allow us the best chance to make an accurately correlated decision based on available information and findings in studies show that limited knowledge can aid us in reaching decisions in uncertain circumstances. That built-in ‘amplifier’ locating positive correlations that seems to help infants to put together speech sounds and learn language suggests that the adult mind is designed to locate positive correlations and filter out the background noise.



I found the original article through a journal search using JSTOR. This one was a bit tricky to find. My copy came from here:


JSTOR is in the process of ‘freeing up’ some of their journals so that we can borrow the older articles to read. I am hoping that this might soon be one of those journals….. If you have any trouble locating the article please contact me or, call your local college or university library for assistance.