George A. Miller dies at 92; psychologist helped lead cognitive science revolution

George A. Miller, an iconoclastic scholar who helped topple the behaviorist school of psychology and replace it with cognitive science, a shift that amounted to no less than a revolution in the study of the human mind, died July 22 at his home in Plainsboro, N.J. He was 92.

The death was announced by Princeton University, where he was a professor emeritus. He had pneumonia and dementia, said his wife, Margaret Miller.

Dr. Miller came to prominence in the mid-1950s at Harvard University, where he and colleague Jerome Bruner founded an intellectual hothouse known as the Center for Cognitive Studies. There, Dr. Miller established his reputation as one of the leading psychologists of the late 20th century. In 1991, President George H.W. Bush awarded Dr. Miller the National Medal of Science.

Before Dr. Miller, Bruner and Noam Chomsky came on the scene, the field of psychology was dominated by behaviorists such as B.F. Skinner. Behaviorist theories — long regarded as dogma — basically posited that people act in accordance with rewards and punishments. Cognitive processes such as thought and memory could not be directly observed, Skinner argued, and therefore did not merit scientific inquiry.

Reflecting on the transformation of psychology that he helped bring about, Dr. Miller told the New York Times that the field was like a “dog turning around three times before it lies down.”


George A. Miller, an influential psychologist who was credited with helping found the field of cognitive science, died July 22 at his home in Plainsboro, N.J. He was 92. (Courtesy of John T. Miller)

Bruner said that Dr. Miller helped “put the emphasis back on the human being as a mental being” who observes the world, processes information, commits it to memory and makes decisions.

“If any person deserves credit for creating the field of cognitive psychology as it has developed in the past roughly 60 years,” the linguist and philosopher Chomsky said in an interview, Dr. Miller is “the one.”

Many of Dr. Miller’s publications are today considered classics, none more than his paper “The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two,” published in the journal Psychological Review in 1956. In that essay, Dr. Miller observed that for most people, short-term memory is limited to about seven “chunks” of information.

More than five decades later, the essay remains one of the most widely cited papers in psychology. It has been trotted out to explain the human capacity to remember phone numbers. In 1981, The Washington Post editorial board pointed to Dr. Miller’s theory to argue against the U.S. Postal Service’s proposal for a nine-digit ZIP code system.

“The Magical Number Seven” was not pop science. To write it, Dr. Miller started with the premise that the brain was not a simple machine akin to the early computers then in development.

By using “intelligence intelligently,” as Bruner described the ability, human beings can use their minds to organize bits of information into what Dr. Miller called “chunks.” Nine letters — C, I, A, F, B, I, I, B and M, for example — can be transformed into three easily remembered “chunks” of information: CIA, FBI and IBM.

“Why did this apparently simple point have a decidedly major impact?” wrote Howard E. Gardner in the book “The Mind’s New Science: A History of the Cognitive Revolution.” “Psychologists had been trying for approximately a century to discover the basic laws of the human mental system. . . . Miller was holding out hope of marriage between the quantities of data collected by psychologists over the years and the rigorous new approaches of the engineering-oriented scientists. The result might be a genuine science of psychology with its own set of immutable laws.”

Unlike many other psychologists and scientists of his era, Dr. Miller embraced disciplines outside his own, including mathematics and the fledgling science of information technology. Chomsky credited Dr. Miller with helping develop the field of psycholinguistics, which joined the study of the mind and the study of language. He was noted for his study of the relationship between expectation and comprehension.

George Armitage Miller was born Feb. 3, 1920, in Charleston, W.Va. He received a bachelor’s degree in history and speech in 1940 and a master’s degree in speech in 1941, both from the University of Alabama.

After World War II, when he worked in a military voice communications laboratory, he received a doctorate in psychology from Harvard University in 1946.

The Center for Cognitive Studies, started in 1960, received early support from the Rockefeller Foundation and Harvard dean McGeorge Bundy, the future national security adviser to Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson.

“Were we surprised at the swiftness of the acceptance?” Bruner said. “I think we didn’t recognize that people all over the place were just as bored with the narrow behaviorist approach as we had been.”

Dr. Miller was a past president of the American Psychological Association and had taught over the years at Harvard, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Rockefeller University and Princeton, which he joined in 1979.

Dr. Miller coauthored or wrote books including “Plans and the Structure of Behavior” (1960), “Psychology: The Science of Mental Life” (1962), “Mathematics and Psychology (1964) and “Language and Perception” (1976).

One of his later projects was the creation of WordNet, a database of the English language that Philip N. Johnson-Laird, a Princeton colleague, described as a computerized version of “Roget’s Thesaurus.”

Dr. Miller’s first wife, Katherine James, died in 1996 after 57 years of marriage. Survivors include his wife of four years, Margaret Ferguson Skutch Page Miller of Princeton; two children from his first marriage, Nancy Saunders of Durham, Ark., and Donnally Miller of Morris Plains, N.J.; two stepsons, David Skutch and Christopher Skutch, both of Montclair, N.J.; and three grandsons.

Dr. Miller was raised in the Christian Scientist faith, which relies on prayer rather than medical science for healing.

“I was brought up believing that if you thought right — if you had the right thoughts — you could somehow be happy and healthy and successful,” he was quoted as saying in the book “Applied Social Psychology” by V.K. Kool and Rita Agrawal. “I was also taught . . . psychology was a sin. . . . So it took me a long time to look at psychology, but when I did, I came to it with a view that perhaps the mind really does have power to influence things.”

Emily Langer is a reporter on The Washington Post’s obituaries desk. She has written about national and world leaders, celebrated figures in science and the arts, and heroes from all walks of life.
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