How Does Chunking Psychology Work? Meaning And Applications

Medically reviewed by Melissa Guarnaccia, LCSW
Updated May 15, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
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The American Psychological Association (APA) defines chunking as the process by which the brain divides significant details into more minor units (chunks), making them easier to retain in short-term memory. In education and psychology, chunking is a way to bind together pieces of information, making them easier to understand and remember. 

In psychology, a chunk is defined as a group of similar units or pieces of information combined into one. Learning to chunk your memory may help you improve your cognitive ability, short-term memory, and school or work function.

Explore the process of chunking in psychology

What is short-term memory?

Short-term memory is the second memory stage, 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, which can hold approximately seven items on average
  • Limited duration, meaning information can become lost quickly, within 30 seconds or less
  • Encoding, occurring mainly by hearing and sometimes by changing visual information into sounds

Your memory capacity includes the recency effect and span (or duration). The recency effect means you may more readily 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 disappears. 

For many people, the span lasts 15 to 30 seconds on average. You can use shortcuts and tricks to store more information for a more extended period, such as repeating the details verbally (acoustic encoding) or chunking the details together to reduce the number of details to be recalled.

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What is working memory? 

Working memory is the part of short-term memory used to store details that can be actively used daily. It is the ability to manage and store details in your mind for a short period. 

Information from your working or short-term memory is moved to your long-term memory through encoding. Encoding is the first step in creating a memory. Your working memory is used for concentrating, following instructions, and learning academic subjects like math and reading. 

There are two types of working memory: visual-spatial (seeing) and auditory (hearing). Understanding working memory may be helpful if you experience a learning disorder or are neurodivergent. In these cases, working memory may be more challenging to achieve. 

When is chunking used, and how does it work?

Below are a few examples of how chunking is used in different areas of life and how it works within short-term and working memory. 

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 might separate the numbers into chunks with dashes, which is the format used for phone numbers: 312-445-9900. Similarly, it may help to divide the word into smaller words or syllables to learn how to spell a word longer than seven letters. For example, you might divide the word patternmaking into pat-tern-making.

Large groups of text are chunked in the same way. For example, people may read large paragraphs more quickly if they separate them into smaller sections, and individuals can absorb shorter lines of text better than larger ones. According to psychologist George A. Miller, humans can only remember seven pieces of information simultaneously. Therefore, you can use chunking when recalling more than seven details. 

Chunking in learning

Chunking can be used for more than recalling visual or auditory information. For example, people use chunking in motor learning every day. When individuals break up significant tasks into shorter blocks, they are using the chunking method. When learning a new task, they may separate the instructions into steps and perform each step separately, pausing between them. Once they have learned the task, they may 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 multiple areas of human learning, including reading, writing, and thinking. Since each person perceives the world uniquely, specific chunks may differ from person to person. However, 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 phenomenon often occurs because these items are not stored in long-term memory, which may happen 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

Although chunking can be used in daily life, many may wonder what it has to do with psychology. Psychology addresses mental processes, and chunking is involved in many of them. For example, cognitive psychology studies mental processes such as thinking, creativity, problem-solving, perception, memory, language usage, and attention. These processes are critical to several areas of psychological research, including developmental, abnormal, personality, social, and educational psychology, as well as the resulting treatment modalities. 

Psychologists teach clients how to retrain their behavior, thoughts, emotions, and feelings when using psychological modalities such as cognitive-behavioral therapy. Chunking psychology can make it easier to absorb and remember information.

What is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)? 

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is a type of therapy combining cognitive and behavioral theories to support clients. In CBT, cognition refers to thoughts, and behavior refers to actions. CBT is an empirically supported therapy that helps restructure the thoughts of individuals experiencing mental health conditions, such as depression and anxiety. 

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 unwanted or unhealthy thoughts and replace them with more accurate, positive ones.

Social anxiety disorder and CBT

Social anxiety disorder is characterized by excessive worry or fears about one or more social situations, such as social gatherings. Those with this mental illness may fear being exposed to negative scrutiny by others, which can cause them to avoid situations. Such avoidance can cause significant disturbances in their day-to-day activities. 

With CBT, a person can learn to change maladaptive behavior by changing their thoughts, which may give them the freedom to experience meaningful social interactions. When people use chunking to store more details in their short-term memory, they may learn faster and remember more, and therapy may become more effective.

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Explore the process of chunking in psychology

Depression and CBT

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

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

  • Substance use disorders 
  • Sleep challenges 
  • Eating disorders 
  • Specific phobias and fears
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) 
  • Panic disorder
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) 
  • Behavioral concerns 
  • Learning challenges 

Counseling options 

You might benefit from meeting with a therapist if you're interested in trying chunking techniques or learning other coping mechanisms to function with daily challenges. Many clients enjoy the flexibility of online therapy options, which offer you the flexibility to choose between phone, video, or live chat sessions with your licensed therapist. 

Recent research points to online platforms as valuable 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 treatment plan, including counseling sessions, interactive exercises, and worksheets. 

Online therapy may be helpful if you are living with a mental health condition interfering with your quality of life. With online therapy through a platform like BetterHelp, you don't have to wait weeks or months for an appointment. In addition, you can message your therapist at any time and receive a response when they are available. 

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Even if you're unfamiliar with chunking as a psychological concept, you may have used it for other purposes. Many individuals use chunking in their daily lives, from memorizing phone numbers to breaking down text into more easily readable bits. Clunking in therapy can help people better understand their thoughts, memories, and beliefs. Contact a licensed therapist for guidance if you have further questions about this technique.

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