It is rare to see criticisms of chunking, however, no concept in psychology has existed without being challenged. Nelson Cowan, a psychologist at the University of Missouri, pointed out in 2015 that there was essentially a 40-year hiatus on studying capacity limits in working memory following Miller’s paper in 1956.4 Cowan suggests the lack of further research building on Miller’s work was due to the fact that he had written his paper using fairly humorous language, highlighting that Miller had written having “been persecuted by an integer” in reference to the magic number seven. In his conclusion, Miller drew parallels to the ubiquity of chunks of seven: the seven seas, the seven deadly sins, the seven wonders of the world, etc. He questioned whether “there was something deep and profound behind all these sevens,” but suggested that it was merely a “pernicious, Pythagorean coincidence.”
Cowan believes this language was influential in stymiing research on chunking, noting that, “scientists shy away from topics that could make them the butt of a joke, so research on possible real commonalities between the phenomena was thereby discouraged, inadvertently I would assume.” Cowan would go on to advocate for further progression of Miller’s research and chunking theory, as in its current state, there are still many unanswered questions. The nature of capacity limits in short-term and working memory for example – whether working memory stores chunks of information discretely or fluidly – is an area of research that didn’t garner much attention until several decades after Miller’s original paper and stands to benefit from further exploration.
Other criticisms around chunking theory revolve around Miller’s “magic number seven.” Some experts in domains such as design, argue that the 7 ± 2 figure is a misleading heuristic, suggesting that a smaller number would be more appropriate in design contexts as Miller’s Law relates to the upper bounds of short-term memory. Design settings such as user experience (UX) benefit from making things easier for a user, so pushing the upper bounds of short-term or working memory may not always be ideal as it would presumably make a process comprehensible though still demanding.5 It is important to note however, that this issue does not actually challenge the efficacy of chunking but rather the concept’s application and interpretation.