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Schema

 

Explanations > Theories > Schema

Description | Research | Example | So What? | See also | References 

 

Description

A schema is a mental structure we use to organize and simplify our knowledge of the world around us. We have schemas about ourselves, other people, mechanical devices, food, and in fact almost everything.

Schemas can be related to one another, sometimes in a hierarchy (so a salesman is a man is a human). 

Schemas affect what we notice, how we interpret things and how we make decisions and act. They act like filters, accentuating and downplaying various elements. We use them to classify things, such as when we ‘pigeon-hole’ people. They also help us forecast, predicting what will happen. We even remember and recall things via schemas, using them to ‘encode’ memories.

Schemas help us fill in the gaps. When we classify something we have observed, the schema will tell us much about its meaning and how it will behave, hence enabling threat assessment and other forecasting.

Schemas appear very often in the attribution of cause. The multiple necessary cause schema is one where we require at least two causes before a ‘fit’ to the schema is declared.

Once we have created or accepted a schema, we will fight hard to sustain it, for example by ignoring or force-fitting observations that do not comply with the schema. It is only after sustained contrary evidence that many of us will admit the need to change the schema.

Schemas are often shared within cultures, allowing short-cut communications. Every word is, in effect, a schema, as when you read it you receive a package of additional inferred information.

We tend to have favorite schema which we use often. When interpreting the world, we will try to use these first, going on to others if they do not sufficiently fit. 

Schemas are also self-sustaining, and will persist even in the face of disconfirming evidence. This is because if something does not match the schema, such as evidence against it, it is ignored. Some schema are easier to change than others, and some people are more open about changing any of their schemas than other people.

Other types of schema include:

  • Social schemas are about general social knowledge. 
  • Person schemas are about individual people. 
  • Idealized person schemas are called prototypes. The word is also used for any generalized schema.
  • Self-schemas are about oneself. We also hold idealized or projected selves, or possible selves
  • Role schemas are about proper behaviors in given situations. 
  • Trait schemas about the innate characteristics people have.
  • Event schemas (or scripts) are about what happens in specific situations.
  • Object schemas about inanimate things and how they work.

The plural of Schema is Schemas (USA) or Schemata (UK). Schemas are also known as mental models, concepts, mental representations and knowledge structures (although definitions do vary--for example some define mental models as modeling cause-effect only).

Research

Cohen showed people a videotape of a scene including a librarian drinking. The people recalled (reconstructed) it with the librarian drinking wine, because their schemas for librarians classified them as being more likely to drink wine.

Example

Some people dislike police because they have a schema of police as people who perceive everyone as guilty until proven innocent. Other people feel safe around police as their schemas are more about police as brave protectors. 

So what?

Using it

Find people's schemas around the area of interest, then either create trust by utilizing their schema  or reframe to change their schema.

Defending

Become more self-aware, knowing your own schemas and why there are useful for you. When people try to change them, you can then more rationally understand whether your or their schemas are better.

See also

Attribution Theory, Framing, Stereotypes, Personal Construct Theory

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References

Cohen (1981), Kelley (1972), Weiner (1979, 1986), Markus (1977)

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