We Proudly Own No Cookie Cutter
Grand Rapids - (616) 633-3770 Indianapolis - (317) 769-0583

The Midweek Motivator – Channel Capacity and the Rule of Seven

In order to improve cognition, it’s helpful to know more about the mind’s wiring. In cognitive psychology there is a concept that refers to the quantity of space in our brain called “channel capacity.” Suppose we were standing by a keyboard and I played a number of random notes, suggesting you tell me whether it’s a high or low note. Let’s say I asked you to assign a number: lowest tone would be ‘1’, medium tone would be ‘3’ and a higher note ‘5’. You wouldn’t have any trouble doing that initially. But as the notes became closer together with more of them, your ability to process the difference between them (say a B-flat and B-sharp in actual scale assignment) would quickly blur. A small percentage among us gifted with “perfect pitch” could do it but everyone else would fall away as the exercise becomes much more difficult.

Most people can divide tones up to six or seven categories. This natural limit shows up no matter the category. If I asked you to smell various flavors (vanilla, lemon, etc) you’d still wind up at a limit of six or seven. In his book The Tipping Point Malcolm Gladwell cited the built-in limitation of recall; whether created by learning or by the design of our nervous system.
Psychologist George Miller stressed this in his essay “The Magical Number Seven” going on to point out why telephone numbers have seven digits. For the sake of capacity, Bell wanted a number to be as long as possible (yet not so long callers couldn’t remember it). Princeton researcher Jonathan Cohen agreed: “With eight or nine numbers people simply can’t process.” In short, once beyond seven, phone numbers would exceed “channel capacity” leading to excessive wrong number misdials.

Try this exercise with your programming or sales staff: in fifteen seconds list all of the local Cardealers that come to mind. Time it! They won’t get beyond five or six. Do the same with music artists, cruise companies or airlines. Why and how does this fundamental of “channel capacity” matter so much? Because for a message to connect—station branding or Commercial creation—you simply can’t defy this principle without a significant decline in your listeners’ retention.Nonetheless we see and hear it all the time.

This is why in “critical listening” for format branding, promo writing, even listeners’ hourly appointment-teasing, “too much” means file-not-found in a listener or viewer’s mind. Very few of us have the capacity to use our brain’s high-gain antenna; instead taking in just enough information to reach channel-capacity with the rest falling away.

Even so, there are magic moments when art meets science allowing us to become a lot more prodigious. But without fail, once we pass a certain recall boundary we become mentally hamstrung. Conversely, when we cleverly craft words and emotions in on-air content, promos or commercial creativity, we stand at the precipice of increased performance and reward.
The next time you start planning your show content, write your promo, or script your client’s creative draft, remember The Rule of Seven and the channel capacity of your target audience.