What Is Chunking Psychology? Definition and Applications

Updated February 2, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

The American Psychological Association (APA) defines chunking as the process by which the brain divides larger pieces of details into smaller units (chunks) so that they are easier to retain in short-term memory. In education as well as psychology, chunking is a way to bind together pieces of information so they are easier to understand and remember. In psychology, a chunk is defined as a group of similar units or pieces of information combined into one group. This can make it easier to recall larger groups of details, including words and numbers.

Explore The Process Of Chunking In Psychology

Chunking When Recalling Letters Or Numbers

One of the best ways to learn phone numbers is to divide them into chunks. For the number 3124459900, you would likely separate the numbers into the chunks 312-445-9900. Similarly, to learn how to spell a word longer than seven letters, it may help to divide the word into smaller words or syllables. For example, you might divide the word patternmaking into pat-tern-making.

Large groups of text are chunked in the same way. For example, we read large paragraphs more easily if we separate them into smaller sections, and we can absorb shorter lines of text better than larger ones. According to George A. Miller, humans are only able to remember seven pieces of information, plus or minus two. Therefore, when we need to recall details that has more than seven pieces, we can use chunking.

Short-Term Memory

Short-term memory is the second stage of memory, as described by the Atkinson-Shiffrin model. Short-term memory holds about seven items on average, for between 15 and 30 seconds. Short-term memory has three facets, as follows:

  • Limited capacity can hold approximately seven items on average.

  • Limited duration means that information can become lost quickly, within 30 seconds or less.

  • Encoding is done mainly by hearing, sometimes by changing visual information into sounds.

Your memory's capacity includes the recency effect and span (or duration). The recency effect means you will likely recall the last items of details in a list before the middle ones. Span or duration refers to how long you can retain that information in your memory before it disappear. gAain, this is 15 to 30 seconds on average. You can use shortcuts and tricks to store more information for a longer period, such as repeating the details verbally (acoustic encoding) or chunking the details together to reduce the amount of details to be recalled.

Working Memory

Working memory is the part of short-term memory used to store details that is actively in use. It is the ability to manage and store details in your mind for a short period. Information from our working memory or short-term memory is moved to our long-term memory through encoding. Encoding definition psychology is the first step in creating a memory. Your working memory is used for concentrating, following instructions, and learning academic subjects, such as math and reading. There are two types of working memory: visual-spatial (seeing) memory and auditory (hearing) memory. Understanding working memory may be helpful when assisting those with a learning disorder, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or dyslexia, where this aspect of memory may be impaired.

Chunking In Learning

Chunking can be useful for more than just recalling visual or auditory information. For example, we use chunking in our motor learning every day. When we break up large tasks into shorter blocks of time, we are using the chunking method. When learning a new task, we typically separate the instructions into steps and then perform each step separately, with a pause between each step. Once we have learned the task, we still tend to pause between each successive step, which qualifies as a chunk.

In addition, recoding linguistics is how humans process their thoughts. Recoding methods such as chunking can be found in almost every area of human learning, including reading, writing, and thinking. Since each person perceives the world uniquely, specific chunks may differ from person to person. However, as a rule, trying to store more than nine items in one's mind may result in the brain dumping the oldest memories to make room for new ones. This is because these items have not been stored in long-term memory, which occurs only after repeatedly performing a task.

Miller's Chunking Theory

Using Miller’s chunking theory, the ability to recall information rises tenfold. This theory includes Miller's Magic Number, which is 7 ± 2. Seven is the average number of details a person can store in their short-term memory. The ability to chunk details into smaller sections may give the individual a way to remember more information. For example, your short-term memory can recall about seven words, but if you group words into chunks of four similar words, you may be able to recall 28 instead.

Chunking In Psychology

You may be wondering what all of this has to do with psychology. Psychology addresses mental processes, and chunking is involved in most of them. For example, cognitive psychology is the study of mental processes such as thinking, creativity, problem-solving, perception, memory, language usage, and attention. These processes are key to much psychological research, including in the areas of developmental, abnormal, personality, social, and educational psychology, as well as the resulting treatment modalities. When using psychological modalities such as cognitive behavioral therapy, psychologists teach the individual how to retrain their behavior, thoughts, emotions, and feelings. Chunking psychology can make it easier to absorb and remember the information.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Cognitive-behavioral therapy, or CBT, is used in many aspects of psychology, sociology, and behaviorism. In CBT, cognition is thought, and behavior refers to action. CBT is an empirically supported therapy that helps restructure the thoughts of individuals experiencing mental health conditions, such as depression and anxiety. In fact, many studies have found CBT to be more effective than medication in treating depression. The premise of CBT is that your actions are a product of your feelings, which are shaped by beliefs and thoughts. Therefore, changing your thoughts and beliefs may help change your actions by altering your feelings. Chunking may be used in CBT when clients are challenged to detect or isolate negative thoughts and replace them with more accurate, positive ones.

Social Anxiety Disorder And CBT

Social anxiety disorder is characterized by excessive worry or fear about one or more social situations, such as social gatherings. Those with this disorder may be afraid of being exposed to negative scrutiny by others, which can cause them to avoid many types of social situations. Such avoidance can cause major disturbances in their day-to-day activities. With CBT, a person can learn to change maladaptive behavior by changing their thoughts, which may provide them with freedom to experience meaningful social interactions. When a person uses chunking to store more details in their short-term memory, they may learn faster and remember more, and therapy may become more effective.

Explore The Process Of Chunking In Psychology

Depression And CBT

Learning to change or control your thoughts in order to change your feelings can also be beneficial in treating depression. Unlike some other treatments, including psychodynamic therapy, CBT focuses on current challenges rather than ones from the past.

Many other mental health conditions can be treated with CBT as well, including the following:

  • Addictions

  • Sleep problems

  • Eating disorders, such as bulimia or anorexia

  • Specific phobias and fears

  • Post-traumatic stress disorder

  • Panic disorder

  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder

  • Behavioral problems

  • Learning disorders

BetterHelp Is There For You

Recent research points to online platforms as useful alternatives to in-person counseling for providing CBT and other forms of therapy. A broad-based study published in the Journal of Contemporary Psychotherapy found that internet-based CBT was effective in treating depression, panic, and anxiety disorders. Mental health professionals can utilize online therapy platforms to guide those seeking treatment through a CBT plan, which can include counseling sessions, interactive exercises, and lessons.

Online therapy may be a useful option if you have a mental health or emotional condition that is interfering with your quality of life. With online therapy through BetterHelp, you don’t have to wait long for an appointment, which can take weeks or even months with in-person therapy. Also, you can contact your therapist via phone, videoconferencing, or live chat.

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Even if you're not familiar with chunking as a psychological concept, it's probably something that you've put into practice for years. From memorizing phone numbers to breaking down text into more easily readable bits, we have all used chunking in our day-to-day lives. Its use in therapy can help people live happier and healthier lives. If you would like to learn more about chunking in therapy or if you simply have questions about therapy, reach out to BetterHelp. Take the first step today.

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