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Miller's Law


Disciplines > Communication > Communication Articles > Miller's Law

Description | Example | Discussion | See also



Psychologist George Miller made a brief comment once (in a 1980 interview) that is now known as 'Miller's Law':

"In order to understand what another person is saying, you must assume that it is true and try to find out what it could be true of."

In other words you should understand a person in the way that they understand and hence converse with them using language that makes sense to their frame of thinking.

So when people use metaphor or anthropomorphize (ascribing human characteristics to animals and things), then you should respond as if the attribution is true.

So when a person says something that seems odd or wrong to you, do not jump to conclusions but start from the position that it makes sense and is right for them, and then talk to them in ways that will similarly make sense to them and help you make more sense of what they say.


Them: My stomach tells me it is unhappy.
You: So what is it saying?
Them: 'I feel all knotted and tight'.

Them: That dog standing there is dead.
You: Why is the dog dead?
Them: The dog is dead because it cannot live like we do.
You: How does the dog live?


The reason this law is something of an 'aha' for many people is that we often speak to others as if they think in exactly the same way that we do, so when something seems wrong we assume they are thinking wrong and are a wrong person who needs to be corrected. It also helps us understand why others criticize us, because they are also not following Miller's Law.

While it is true that we have much in common with others in how our minds work, our actual thoughts and underlying beliefs, models, preferences, values and so on can vary quite significantly. As a result we often take the reverse approach to Miller's Law, assuming that when people say things that do not make complete sense to us, then they are wrong.

This is a slippery slope as we then make further conclusions and respond in ways that confuse or annoy the other people (who also do the same thing back to us). A particularly problematic part of this is when we attribute causes and characteristics, assuming they are saying or doing things for intrinsically personal reasons, but which are in fact false.

Miller's Law is effectively used by those who want to avoid the truth as they deliberately answer a question truthfully but in a way that deceives.

Did you punch him?

No I did not punch him. (actually they karate-chopped him).

The point to remember here is to be careful in your questioning and ensure you get the full picture. A clue in the statement above is that a truthful person is more likely to say just 'No', whilst the deceiver carefully parrots back the 'punch' phrase to ensure the truth of their statement is clear.

See also

Attribution Theory




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