Applications of Information Theory to Psychology: A Summary of Basic Concepts, Methods, and Results

By Fred Attneave | Go to book overview

FOREWORD

THE IDEA that information is something measurable in precise terms was not widely appreciated until 1948, when Norbert Wiener book Cybernetics appeared and Claude E. Shannon published a pair of articles titled "The Mathematical Theory of Communication" in the Bell System Technical Journal. Psychologists reading Wiener for the first time were perhaps more impressed by his discussion of feed- back, and machines which display purposive behavior, than by the suggestions for quantifying information which his book contained. The quick spread of Shannon's ideas beyond the field of engineering may be attributed largely to a skillful and imaginative introductory article by Warren Weaver which appeared in the July 1949 issue of Scientific American and was later published together with Shannon's articles in book form [79]. George A. Miller and Frederick C. Frick published, also in 1949, an article [57] which first clearly demonstrated the relevance of information theory to psychology, with a method for quantifying organization or patterning in sequences of events which will be described in Chapter 2.

Thus presented with a shiny new tool kit and a somewhat esoteric new vocabulary to go with it, more than a few psychologists reacted with an excess of enthusiasm. During the early fifties some of the attempts to apply informational techniques to psychological problems were successful and illumi- nating, some were pointless, and some were downright bizarre. At present two generalizations may be stated with considerable confidence: (1) Information theory is not going to provide a ready-made solution to all psychological problems; (2) Em-

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