What Is Schema?

Research in human perception and in cognitive psychology has traditionally concerned itself with the ways in which people perceive, understand, store and remember information about physical stimuli and objects. During the 1980s social cognition research began to posit that people apprehended and made sense of complex social information by simplifying and organizing this information into meaningful cognitive structures called schemas. Schemas signify plural; the other common plural form is schemata.

The concept of schema has appeared in various psychological literatures, but the most influential tradition of research, which preceded the work on social schema theory, was Bartlett’s book on Remembering (1932).

Bartlett was an English psychologist whose research in the 1930s concerned human memory for pictures, figures and stories. He argued that people organize images and information into meaningful patterns and these patterns facilitate later memory recall. This view was different from the most dominant view at the time, which argued that people perceived and represented information as isolated elements. As with Bartlett’s work, early research in social schema theory suggested that people are better able to remember information when it is organized around a theme compared to when it is not.

A schema is conceptualized as a cognitive structure which contains general expectations and knowledge of the world. This may include general expectations about people, social roles, events and how to behave in certain situations. Schema theory suggests that we use such mental structures to select and process incoming information from the social environment.

The best definition of a schema comes from the early work of Taylor and Crocker:

  • [A] schema is a cognitive structure that consists in part of a representation of some defined stimulus domain. The schema contains general knowledge about that domain, including specification of the relationships among its attributes, as well as specific examples or instances of the stimulus domain. …The schema provides hypotheses about incoming stimuli, which include plans for interpreting and gathering schema-related information. (1981, p.91)

Schemas take the form of general expectations learned through experience or socialization and thus give us some sense of prediction and control of the social world. It would be very difficult to function if we went about our everyday life without prior knowledge or expectations about the people and events around us. As such, schemas are theorized to be functional and essential for our well-being.

As existing mental structures, they help us to understand the complexity of social life. Schemas help guide what we attend to, what we perceive, what we remember and what we infer. They are like mental short-cuts we use to simplify reality.

Early schema models posited that people are cognitive misers Opens in new window: many judgments and evaluations were said to be ‘top of the head’ phenomena (Taylor & Fiske, 1978), made with little thought or considered deliberation. This metaphor has been replaced, however, with one that views social thinking as more strategic and flexible: that people are more like ‘motivated tacticians’ (Fiske, 1992, 2004).

Thus, research on the concept of schema aims to understand how people represent social information in memory and how new information is assimilated with existing knowledge; that is, how people are able to process, interpret and understand complex social information.

Types of Schema

The schema concept has been applied empirically to four main content areas: person schemas, self schemas, role schemas and event schemas (Fiske & Taylor, 1991; Taylor & Crocker, 1981).

All schemas serve similar functions — they all influence the encoding (taking in and interpretation) of new information, memory for old information and inferences about missing information. We briefly consider each of these four content areas in turn.

Person schemas

Person schemas deal with abstracted conceptual structures of personality traits or person prototypes that enable a person to categorize and make inferences from the experience of interactions with other people (Cantor & Mischel, 1977). In most research these person schemas are actually referred to as trait prototypes, so we will use the terms interchangeably.

One new way in which we can facilitate our interactions with the many people in our lives is to categorize individuals in terms of their dominant personality traits. For example, characters from the popular television series Seinfeld, such as George Costanza, could be characterized as a protypical ‘neurotic’, and Kramer, a prototypical ‘extrovert’. Trait or person schemas enable us to answer the question ‘what kind of person is he or she?’ (Cantor & Mischel, 1979), and thus help us anticipate the nature of our interactions with specific individuals, giving us a sense of control and predictability in social interactions.

Self schemas

How would you describe yourself? Self schemas refer to the conceptual structures people have of themselves. Markus defines them as ‘cognitive generalizations about the self, derived from past experience, that organize and guide the processing of self-related information contained in the individual’s social experiences’ (1977, p.64).

Self schemas are thought to be well elaborated structures which are linked to salient an largely stable individual traits and behavior. They are components of the self-concept which are central to identity and self-definition. The self schema concept is therefore consistent with various psychological conceptions of the self which emphasize the static, enduring and self-protecting nature of the self-concept.

Event schemas

Event schemas can be described as cognitive scripts that describe the sequential organization of events in everyday activities (Schank & Abelson, 1977). Thus, event schemas provide the basis for anticipating the future, setting goals and making plans. They provide the basis for anticipating the future, setting goals and making plans. They enable the individual to set strategies to achieve such goals, by specifying the appropriate behavioral sequences through which the individual must move to attain the desired state. So we know that the appropriate behavioral sequence for eating at a restaurant is to enter, wait to be seated by a waiter, order a drink, look at the menu, order the meal, eat, pay the bill and leave.

Schank & Abelson (1977) argue that our common-sense understanding of behavior in particular situations is characterized by a large repertoire of unconscious knowledge and assumptions — a kind of behavioral pragmatics, which orients us in everyday life. This repertoire is stored in memory and activated unconsciously whenever it is needed. Indeed, Schank & Abelson argue that ‘memory is organized around personal experiences or episodes rather than around abstract semantic categories’ (1977, p.17). This allows us to generalize from repeated experiences so that we do not need to process information from scratch every time we encounter a similar situation.

Role schemas

Role schemas refer to the knowledge structures people have of the norms and expected behaviors of specific role positions in society. These can refer to achieved and ascribed roles. The former include roles which are acquired through effort and training, such as the doctor role or psychologist role, while the latter refer to roles which we have little control over such as age, sex and race. Achieved roles are usually occupationally related, and provided us with a set of normative expectations about the behavior of individuals occupying certain positions.

Social cognition research on ascribed roles has been prolific, especially in the areas of gender and race stereotypes. Stereotypes are a type of schema which organize information and knowledge about people from different social categories. They are mental representations of social groups and their members that are widely shared (Hamilton & Sherman, 1994).