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Schemas (or schemata) are generic knowledge structures that summarize past experiences and provide a framework for the acquisition, interpretation, and retrieval of new information. For example, one might have a clown schema based on past encounters with, and previously learned knowledge about, clowns. When one encounters a new clown, one’s clown schema may cause one to notice its painted face, expect polka-dotted pantaloons, interpret its actions as goofy, and recall the presence of a unicycle. Usually, such operations are functional, leading to more rapid, accurate, and detailed information processing. However, such operations can lead to biases or errors when they produce inaccurate information (e.g., when one mistakenly recalls a clown as having a bulbous red nose).
Many of the fundamental precepts underlying the schema concept were anticipated by the Gestalt movement in European psychology. Bartlett (1932) incorporated these ideas into his concept of schema. He posited that past memories are stored as larger, organized structures rather than as individual elements, and that newly perceived information is accommodated into these ‘masses’ of old information. He suggested that this accommodation process is accomplished primarily through unconscious inference and faulty memory. Consequently, his theory focused more on the dysfunctional, reconstructive, and inaccurate nature of schemas. Because of his emphasis on subjective experience and the unconscious, his views and research methods departed from the behaviorist leanings of American psychology, and were largely ignored until the cognitive revolution in the 1960s and 1970s.
In the mid-1970s, schema theory was reﬁned by cognitive psychologists (see Brewer and Nakamura 1984 and Hastie 1981). While incorporating Bartlett’s basic premises, these modern approaches also acknowledged the functional beneﬁts of schemas in terms of increased cognitive eﬃciency and accuracy. Furthermore, these modern approaches extended the concept of schema by incorporating it within contemporary cognitive theory. For example, schemas are now construed as (a) selectively activated, just like any other concept in memory, (b) nested within each other, with each deﬁned partly through reference to related schemas, (c) providing ‘default values’ for embedded informational features, and (d) having active, testable memory functions. These ideas stimulated considerable work on schematic processing within cognitive psychology.
2. Schematic Processing
For a schema to aﬀect processing it must ﬁrst be activated. Because of the unitary and organized nature of schemas, this is generally assumed to be an all-or-nothing process, in that the entire schema (as opposed to bits and pieces) either comes to mind completely or not at all. For example, one could not activate a chair schema without becoming aware of both the typical appearance of chairs and their normal seating function.
Research has identiﬁed a number of variables that inﬂuence when particular schemas are activated by new information, including ﬁt, context and priming. In terms of ﬁt, for example, a chair with typical features like four legs, armrests, and a back is more likely to activate the chair schema than is a three-legged stool. Context can also inﬂuence activation, so that an ice chest is more likely to activate a chair schema at a campsite than on a store shelf. Finally, schemas can be primed in memory through frequent or recent experiences that bring them to mind. For example, reading about chairs in this paragraph could increase the likelihood that you would activate a chair schema in response to a tree stump.
Once activated, schemas appear to have complex eﬀects on attention. Overall, research suggests that schemas direct attention toward schema-relevant, rather than schema-irrelevant, information. However, it makes some diﬀerence whether the schema-relevant information is schema congruent or schema incongruent. Schema-incongruent information captures the most attention, presumably because it violates expectations. Schema-congruent information is attended to while an appropriate schema is in the process of being activated or instantiated, but ignored once this activation is accomplished. For example, early in the process a seat might be noticed because it helps to identify an object as a chair, but once a chair schema is activated, the seat would be ignored as obvious.
Schemas have also been shown to have powerful eﬀects on the interpretation (or encoding) of new information, providing a framework that shapes expectancies and judgments. Research suggests that this inﬂuence is especially pronounced when the new information is ambiguous, vague or incomplete. For example, the ambiguous word ‘chair’ would be interpreted diﬀerently if you had a department head schema activated than if you had a furniture schema activated.
Finally, research indicates that schemas aﬀect the retrieval of information from memory. Memory eﬀects are often viewed as reﬂecting the organizational properties of schemas. Because schemas are large, organized clusters of linked information, they provide multiple routes of access for retrieving individual items of information. Such retrieval routes have been shown to facilitate memory in a number of ways. For example, experts have particularly complex and well-organized schemas and consequently exhibit better recall for domain-relevant information. Thus, as chess expertise increases, so does memory for board arrangements from actual games (though not for random arrangements).
Enhanced recall for schema-related information can reﬂect either retrieval or guessing mechanisms. For example, if a newspaper article activates a prisoner execution schema, the link between such executions and electric chairs could help one to recall that an electric chair was mentioned. On the other hand, the schema may instead facilitate an educated guess. As noted previously, schemas have been found to provide defaults for ﬁlling in missing information. Thus an electric chair might be ‘remembered’ even if it were not mentioned in the story. Such guesses produce biases and errors when the inferred information is incorrect.
3. Criticisms Of The Schema Concept
A number of criticisms were leveled at the schema concept in the 1980s (e.g., Alba and Hasher 1983, Fiske and Linville 1980). First, schemas were criticized as deﬁnitionally vague, with little consensus regarding concept boundaries. In other words, it is unclear what diﬀerentiates schemas from other kinds of knowledge, attitudes or attributions. Second, research on schemas has been attacked as operationally vague, especially because of unvalidated manipulations. For example, researchers sometimes assume that schemas are activated by cues or expectancies in the absence of manipulation checks evidencing such activation. Third, work on schemas has been denounced as nonfalsiﬁable, in that virtually any result can be interpreted as reﬂecting schema use. Fourth, it has been argued that schema theory has diﬃculty accounting for the complexity and accuracy of memory. For instance, there is evidence that people encode and remember more than simply the gist of events, and that schematic distortions are the exception rather than the rule. Finally, some critics have complained that schema theory and research amounts to little more than the reframing of previously known phenomena in terms of a new, schematic vocabulary. For example, biases in person perception documented as early as the 1940s have since been reframed as schema eﬀects.
On the other hand, schema theory survived such criticisms because its strengths clearly outweigh its weaknesses. The breadth of the ‘vague’ schema concept allows it to encompass a wide variety of phenomena, ranging from autobiographical memory to visual perception. In many such contexts, the schema concept has been embedded in elaborate theory, allowing for more precise deﬁnition, manipulation, and measurement. With such reﬁnements, schema theory often makes speciﬁc, falsiﬁable predictions that lead to clearer, if not totally unambiguous, interpretations. Additionally, modern schema research has increasingly focused on the ways that schemas facilitate, rather than interfere with, memory, accounting better for the frequent accuracy of memory. Overall, the schema concept has proven to be tremendously heuristic, leading to novel research that has documented important new phenomena.
4. Social Psychological Research
Social psychologists have applied the schema concept to complex interpersonal phenomena often using cognitive methods and theory. Given this approach, research on schemas has become an integral part of the subﬁeld known as social cognition. Such research has not only elaborated the kinds of information processing eﬀects described in the cognitive literature, but has also led to the identiﬁcation of a wide variety of new phenomena.
4.1 Schematic Processing Of Social Information
Social psychologists have examined the eﬀects of trait schemas on the processing of schema-related information (see Taylor and Crocker 1981). This research found patterns of recall for congruent, incongruent, and irrelevant information paralleling the patterns described earlier for cognitive stimuli. Speciﬁcally, people best recall trait-incongruent information, followed by trait-congruent information, with traitirrelevant information last. For example, if people have an impression (schema) of Jamie as honest, they would best recall his dishonest behaviors (e.g., embezzling money from the honor society), because this information is surprising and needs to be reconciled with Jamie’s other behaviors. They would next best recall Jamie’s honest behaviors (e.g., returning a lost wallet), because these are expected and, thus, readily ﬁt into the existing schema. Jamie’s honesty-irrelevant behaviors (e.g., consulting on statistical issues) would be worst recalled because they do not relate in any way to the honesty schema. Perhaps one of the most signiﬁcant contributions of this social psychological work has been to move beyond the diﬀerential attention explanation for these ﬁndings. Such eﬀects are now understood to also reﬂect behavior-to-behavior or behavior-to-schema interconnections that are created as people think about how this information can be reconciled. Incongruent information actually becomes most interconnected as people mull it over while trying to make sense of it, and irrelevant information remains least interconnected, because it warrants little reﬂection.
Social psychologists have also used the concept of schema to understand the nature of the self, which had been debated by psychologists for a century (see Linville and Carlston 1994). Most early empirical work focused on the content of the self-concept, though such work was hindered by vague conceptions of self and by the idiosyncratic nature of self-knowledge. The conception of self as a schema provided a more coherent deﬁnition, and shifted the empirical emphasis from the content of the self to the functions of self-schemas. The consequence was a proliferation of social psychological research in this area. Considerable empirical eﬀort went into assessing whether the self is a unique kind of schema, distinct from other forms of social knowledge. Although there are exceptions, most studies have failed to ﬁnd convincing evidence that self-schemas are unique or distinct from other forms of knowledge. Consequently, the seemingly ‘unique’ eﬀects of self-schemas may simply reﬂect the greater complexity and personal relevance of self-knowledge.
Researchers have also explored whether people have just one, uniﬁed self-schema, or whether people have multiple self-schemas. Most contemporary theories depict people as having multiple self-schemas, with the one that is currently activated (in use) being referred to as the working or phenomenal self. Several approaches to the idea of multiple selves have been highly inﬂuential. One approach (self-complexity theory) suggests that people have diﬀerent self-schemas representing their varied social roles and relationships such as student, parent, athlete, lover, and so on. When many such self-schemas implicate diﬀerent attributes, then failures in one realm may be oﬀset by successes in another, leading to emotional buﬀering and enhanced mental health. On the other hand, when one has few self-schemas, and these overlap considerably, then failure in any realm can have a devastating aﬀect on one’s self-esteem.
Another approach (self-discrepancy theory) identiﬁes three kinds of self-schema: the actual self that we each believe describes us as we are, the ideal self that we aspire to become, and the ought self that others expect us to live up to. According to this theory, increased (rather than decreased) overlap among self-schemas leads to enhanced mental health. For example, discrepancies between the actual and ideal selves leads to dysphoria, and discrepancies between the actual and ought selves leads to anxiety. Theorists now construe multiple self-schemas in terms of the diﬀerent kinds of information that is activated or accessible at any given time. A number of factors aﬀect which self-schema is currently activated. The contexts or situations we ﬁnd ourselves in can cue particular self-schemas. For instance, a work setting generally will cue our professional selves whereas a home setting will generally cue our familial selves.
The self-aspects that are most salient to an individual are also inﬂuenced by individual diﬀerences. For example, members of Mensa may chronically categorize themselves and others in terms of intelligence. Such ‘schematics’ tend to view the chronic trait as important and to rate themselves highly on that dimension compared with ‘aschematics.’
A related issue involves whether self-schemas are stable or change over time. In general, schemas are viewed as fairly stable representations, and this is even more pronounced for self-schemas. However in recent years, research has focused on factors underlying the occasional malleability of the self-concept. Re- searchers have shown that major life events, such as losing a job or experiencing the death of a loved one, can aﬀect the self-schema substantially. Additionally, our self-schemas can change when we obtain new self-knowledge (e.g. learning our IQ). Relatedly, our self-schemas can be inﬂuenced by how others think about and treat us. For example, research suggests that if teachers treat students as incompetent, the students tend to incorporate this view into their self-schema and behave accordingly. Finally, our self-schemas change over time, reﬂecting normal age-related changes in maturity, social and cognitive development, and complexity.
4.3 Biases In Person Perception
As noted earlier, schemas serve a number of cognitive functions, such as providing a framework for interpreting information and furnishing default values for unobserved or unrecalled details. When these inferences are incorrect, they produce biases and errors. For example, impressions of others can be inﬂuenced by context schemas, as when a person is viewed as more athletic when encountered at a gym than when encountered at a funeral. Similarly, impressions of a new acquaintance can be inﬂuenced by others present in the environment, even when there is no logical reason for this. For instance, relatives of physically disabled people may be viewed as having some of the same limitations simply because the disability schema has been activated. Impressions can also be inﬂuenced by deja vu eﬀects. If you meet someone new who resembles someone you already know, activation of the resembled-person’s schema may cause you to assume that the new person has similar traits and characteristics. Role schemas can also bias impressions. If you know two nuns, you may confuse them because they activate similar role schemas. These are just a couple examples of many ways in which schemas can alter impressions.
4.4 Types Of Social Schema
As the preceding review suggests, social psychologists have identiﬁed many diﬀerent types of social schema. These include previously-mentioned role schemas (e.g., occupations), relationship schemas (e.g., parent), and trait schemas (e.g., honesty). Additionally, impressions of individuals have been construed as person schemas. Event schemas represent common ‘scripts’ as ordered sequences of actions that comprise a social event, such as attending a wedding or dining at a restaurant. Such event schemas facilitate memory for social events, as evidenced by research showing that people have diﬃculty remembering events that are presented to them in an illogical order. There are also nonverbal schemas composed of series of physical acts (sometimes called procedural schemas), such as a schema for riding a bike. Similarly, simple judgment rules or heuristics (e.g., smooth talkers are more believable) are sometimes viewed as nonverbal, procedural schemas.
Finally, a wide variety of stereotype schemas have been identiﬁed in the social literature. Research suggests that race, age, and gender schemas, in particular, are used automatically to categorize others, presumably because these cues are visually salient and our culture deﬁnes them as important. Some research has suggested that these automatic schema eﬀects can be overridden when people have suﬃcient awareness, motivation and cognitive resources to do so (e.g., Devine 1989). However, this issue remains controversial.
5. Future Directions
The term schema is no longer in vogue, although the essential features of the concept of schemas have been incorporated within broader theories of knowledge structure and mental representation. Work in this area promises to become increasingly sophisticated in several respects. Sophisticated new cognitive theories (e.g., connectionism) provide a better understanding of how schemas form and evolve as new information is acquired. Theorists are better deﬁning and diﬀerentiating diﬀerent types of cognitive structures and mechanisms. Research is providing better evidence for the kinds of representations assumed to underlie diﬀerent phenomena. Such developments are reﬁning our understanding of the schema concept and how the mind works in general. Ultimately, this work will prove most interesting and impactful as it demonstrates that schematic representations have behavioral as well as cognitive consequences.
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