George Miller

The great psychologist George Armitage Miller died yesterday. It will take a few days for obituaries to appear in the newspapers, but here are some academic notes.

I’ve known George, and admired his work, since early in the 1960s. Wherever you went in psychology, and especially in psycholinguistics and cognitive science, George had been there before you, and he wrote, clearly and plainly, for both narrowly academic audiences and much broader readerships. He was also immensely collaborative and collegial, roles in which he will especially be missed. (Granted, he died at the age of 92, after an immensely successful academic life, but still …)

The Wikipedia page is unfocused and skeletal. It does tell us that

In 1960, Miller founded the Center for Cognitive Studies at Harvard with Jerome Bruner, a cognitive developmentalist.

and recognizes his importance in the creation (and maintenance) of the WordNet project at Princeton.

Some highlights in his work:

GAM & Patricia E. Nicely. 1955. An analysis of perceptual confusions among some English consonants. JASA 27.2.338-52.

GAM. 1956. The magical number seven, plus or minus two: Some limits on our capacity for processing information. Psych. Rev. 63.2.81-97. [enormously influential paper in the study of memory; emphasized the importance of chunking]

GAM; Galanter, Eugene; & Pribram, Karl.1960. Plans and the structure of behavior. Holt.

Chomsky, Noam & GAM. 1963. Introduction to the formal analysis of natural languages. Luce et al., 269-321. [and]

GAM & Noam Chomsky. 1963.  Finitary models of language users. Luce et al., 419-91. [two chapters in Luce, R. Duncan; R. R. Bush; & Eugene Galanter (eds.). 1963. Handbook of mathematical psychology, Volume II. John Wiley. George once maintained to me that he didn’t really fathom most of the mathematics in these papers — that was Noam’s work — but I’m not sure we can take his comment at face value.]

GAM. 1967. Empirical methods in the study of semantics. D.L. Arm (ed.), Journeys in science: Small steps – great steps (Univ. of New Mexico Press), 51-73.

GAM (ed.). 1973. Communication, language, and meaning. Basic Books.

GAM & Philip N. Johnson-Laird. 1976. Language and perception. Harvard Univ. Press.

GAM & Philip N. Johnson-Laird. 1977. Spontaneous apprentices: Children and language. Seabury Press. [fascinating account of the way scientific research is pursued]

GAM interviewed by Elizabeth Hall,”Giving Away Psychology in the 80’s: George Miller” in Psychology Today, January 1980, pp. 38-50 and 97-98. [on page 46. we get this formulation of Miller’s Law: “In order to understand what another person is saying, you must assume that it is true and try to imagine what it could be true of.”]

GAM. 1991. The science of words. Scientific American Library (W. H. Freeman). [everything to do with words; great book, which I’ve used as a text for undergraduates]

GAM. 2003. The cognitive revolution: a historical perspective. Trends in Cognitive Sciences 7.3.141-4.

That should give you some feel for the breadth of George’s ideas and research.


10 Responses to “George Miller”

  1. arnold zwicky Says:

    From Jean Berko Gleason on Facebook:

    As an undergraduate, I took a course on the psychology of language with Roger Brown that changed my life. The textbook was written by George Miller. That was in 1952!

    That would be the 1951 Language and Communication, which in fact grew out of George’s teaching the Psychology of Language course at Harvard for four years.

  2. Mark Underwood Says:

    “Skeletal” indeed. When in the 80’s I collaborated with Peter Culicover on a software system to perform natural language understanding, it relied heavily on the memory constraints Miller’s work identified. I run an occasional blog drawing from such inspiration at

  3. Jan DeLucien Says:

    I met George Miller, a year after he was married to a beautiful friend of mine. It happened to be the spring that he finally retired from his work at Princetol. He was a fascinating, charming and gracious man. My grandson joined me on my next trip and felt a strong connection with him and was terribly impressed with the books, the awards, and pictures of him with other important people. He had recognized some of the books from reference articles in his books. If remember correctly, he said that some of the concepts were in some of his exams. (He was taking Psych in HS)

  4. Michael Silverstein Says:

    I had the great pleasure, as a Harvard undergraduate, of taking “Social Sciences 8. Psychological Conceptions of Man [sic]” from George Miller, Jerome Bruner,, and Roger Brown” (my “section man” was my current emeritus colleague, David McNeill!). Of course the ‘magical number’ was one of the characters. But Miller was as lucid as one might imagine, and for many years afterward I enjoyed being around him at the Center for Cognitive Studies, which hosted Noam Chomsky, among others, during 1963-64 or 1964-65. His leaving Cambridge, along, ultimately, with Jerry Bruner, was a great blow to the cognitive sciences there.
    What impressed me greatly about George was that while “Language and Communication” of `1951 was completely a product of the communication theory and shallow psychologists’ behaviorism of the time, he was able to grow in the completely new direction of cognitivism when it presented itself to him. I don’t think it was merely opportunism/careerism, but an actual realization — cf. the work with Galanter and Pribram — that the mind is an active producer of cognitive representations beyond reactive models to “stimuli.” What a great time that was to be in Cambridge!

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      Wonderful times indeed. And thanks for this recollection, to add to Jean Berko Gleason’s. Still waiting to see how the newspapers frame things.

      George had the great ability to appreciate new things, new ideas, and adjust to them. I can only hope that someone will be writing his intellectual history, which is a story of ideas in the 20th century.

  5. arnold zwicky Says:

    The New York Times obit is now out, in the August 2nd paper: “George A. Miller, a Pioneer in Cognitive Psychology, Is Dead at 92” by Paul Vitello.

  6. Churn and change Says:

    The wikipedia page ( is no longer bare-bones. I will be adding more to the article (his APA address in 1969 that is widely cited; information from the book of essays in his honor: The making of cognitive science; his stance in the 1970s on various social issues a major part of the debate then, and so on). It would be nice if you could release a photograph of his into the public domain so I could add it to the article. Any photograph you took would work, assuming it is something that evokes the image of an elderly professor. If you are willing, please let me know either by responding here or via direct email–I will provide instructions on how to upload to Wikimedia Commons. Thanks.

  7. arnold zwicky Says:

    Now in the October 2012 issue of the Association for Psychological Science’s Observer, reminiscences of George by ten colleagues.

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