Postcodes aren’t exactly interesting, at least that’s what I thought. I’d been reading about how cognitive psychologists from Cambridge University had been involved in the design of the UK postcode system in the late 1950s and happened to mention it briefly on Twitter, a kind of admission of my own nerdiness.
A couple of my followers replied suggesting I create a thread about what I’d learned. I suspected they were either joking or were just as nerdy as me. I duly obliged, hoping that someone might find it interesting.
Less than 24 hours later my thread was trending. People had started numerous discussions about how the UK system differs from those in other countries, how I’d neglected to include some of the more idiosyncratic elements of postcodes, and pointing out that London postcodes are different to the rest of the country. I also received some lovely messages from postal workers highlighting how these curious combinations of letters and numbers shape their working day. So what is it about UK postcodes that people appear to find so interesting?
My main interests lie in the psychology of learning; with the practical application of psychological research. Often, however, psychology seems to be somewhat detached from the real world. This perception is perhaps more obvious when it comes to cognitive psychology (the study of mental processes). Cognitive psychologists seem to spend a large amount of time getting volunteers to recall lists of names, numbers and words that often appear to have no relationship to what people are actually doing with their memories. Appearance can be deceptive, however, and cognitive psychology has provided many answers and potential solutions to a range of factors, from the cognitive mechanisms involved in dyslexia and dyscalculia to designing more effective ways the police can interview witnesses. Back in the 1950s, the Post Office even asked cognitive psychologists to help them design a memorable postcode system.
UK Postcodes: The basics.
According to a 2016 Royal Mail survey, UK residents are more likely to remember their postcode than their debit card PIN (92% compared with 77%). Furthermore, 17% of people questioned can still remember the postcode of the house where they lived between 21 and 30 years ago. Postcodes are pretty memorable and the UK is said to have the most memorable system in the world. For those unfamiliar with the UK system, postcodes are alphanumeric codes generally consisting of 6 or 7 letter-number combinations, separated by a space. The first half of the code (the outward code) includes letters that denote the town or city (although there are exceptions) and a number that narrows the location to a specific area. Therefore, LS1 represents Leeds city centre, with higher numbered areas fanning out from there (see the map below). The second half of the code (the inward code) then narrows the location down further, to a street or even a group of houses within that street. Leeds public library, for example, has the postcode LS1 3AB (note the space). This allows Royal Mail to quickly and efficiently sort and deliver items.
Initially, postcodes were designed to speed up sorting following the mechanisation of the postal system in 1959, but they did exist in some areas before this, such as London where the codes correspond to compass points and postal districts (e.g. N1, E17, NW1). However, today they are used for much more than sending letters. A Sat Nav, for example, is much easier to use if you know the postcode of your destination as is ordering that takeaway during lockdown. I recently moved to Leeds from a town in North Yorkshire and, although I know Leeds quite well, I wasn’t at all sure where I wanted to live. I asked friends and family and they suggested areas I might like (or might like to avoid). Often, however, they would reply with ‘LS6 is okay if you don’t mind all the students but LS4 is smaller and a little quieter’ or ‘LS9 and LS2 are close to the city centre.’ I then searched properties online using the outgoing postcode. Of course it’s not always so simple. Skipton, a small market town in the county of North Yorkshire, has a Bradford (BD) outgoing code (Bradford is in West Yorkshire and around 18 miles from Skipton).
In 1959 the Post Office approached Reuben Conrad, a psychologist working at the Medical Research Council Applied Psychology Unit, University of Cambridge (now the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit). Conrad (he never went by his first name) wasn’t too keen on theory, being much more interested in the practical application of his work. He would later go on to work with deaf children where he had a long and very distinguished career, passing away in 2020 at the age of 103. He was assisted in the project by a young PhD student named Alan Baddeley, whose later work on memory (with Graham Hitch) would lead to the development of the Working Memory model, probably the most influential model of memory to date. If you’ve studied any psychology in the UK, you’ll have heard of Alan Baddeley.
The codes they were asked to develop had to memorable and sort to street level; they also had to ensure a maximum number permutations. Research carried out in the 1950s had already found that short-term memory had a capacity of between 5 and 9 pieces if information (letters, numbers, words, etc). This meant that the codes couldn’t have more than 9 letters or digits because the average person would be unable to hold them all in short-term memory. In other words, if I were to recite a list of numbers to you and ask you to recite them back to me, you should be able to cope with 7 or 8 but not 10 or 11 (technically, this is known as the immediate digit span).
Research also concluded that codes with only numbers proved difficult to remember; they also have a smaller range of permutations than letters (10 versus 26). A mixture of numbers and letters, on the other hand, would produce a significantly higher number of permutations. But you then have to decide the order of the letter-number combinations.
It was decided that each code would begin with the initial letters of the town name, so Norwich (where the first postcodes were trialled in 1959) would initially become NOR, York would become YOR (they would later be adapted to NR and YO followed by a number). This part is the easiest to remember because it includes elements of the town or city’s name and because it’s the part less prone to error, even if the rest of the code is wrong it’s still going to end up in the right area.
The second part of the code (the inward code) is the most difficult to remember and corresponds to the street. By using a digit and 2 letters it can produce a huge number of possibilities (10 x 26 x 26) but the Post Office were unsure of where to place the number. Conrad opted to place it at the beginning of the inward code because it stood out and acted as a mental nudge for the final two letters (this is were most errors occur, often through reversal; BA becomes AB, for example). The gap between the two codes creates a natural rhythm in the same way as telephone numbers.
London isn’t the only exception.The BF outward code, for example, is used for British Forces. In addition, BX is a non-geographical code used by large organisations, giving them more flexibility over postal delivery. The XX outward code is used by online retails for returns via Royal Mail, and more recently Covid-19 testing centres.
Thanks to cognitive psychology, the United Kingdom has one of the most memorable postcode systems in the world, if not the most memorable. It may have been intended to to speed up sorting but with the advent of the internet and, most recently, the smartphone, it’s become an increasing useful product of early cognitive psychology.