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The Seven Commandments

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By Jacqueline Leo

How many of the Ten Commandments can the average person name? Almost no one aces this test including respondents in a survey by Kelton Research who were able to name the seven ingredients in a Big Mac, but not recall the commandment, “thou shalt not kill.” Yet the Ten Commandments are the equivalent of a social contract that informs our legal system, our civil behavior, and our love and respect for God. The Commandments are shared by Jews and Christians, but other religious groups subscribe to many of the same principles. So why can’t we name them all? I believe it’s because we can’t hold more than 7 independent objects in short term memory—a proposition that was proved scientifically in 1956 by George Miller, then a professor at Harvard who wrote the seminal paper, “The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information.”

Miller is known as the father of cognitive science, and I often wonder how he would apply his magical…