A schema is a knowledge structure containing the generic representation of a concept. For example, a schema for chairs includes a flat platform to sit upon, four legs, and a back. While not all chairs fit this description, schemas can be modified to include other versions of the concept (e.g., a three-legged stool or a chair with no legs). Schemas can be held about any concept, are often arranged hierarchically, and affect perception, cognition, and memory.
The concept of a schema can be traced to Immanuel Kant (1724–1804), who in 1781 discussed the concept in Critique of Pure Reason. More recently, Frederick Bartlett, in 1932, had participants read foreign folktales and later asked them to recall the details. When reading a Native American folktale, non–Native American participants often changed “canoe” to “boat,” left out prominent themes, and made the story more European. Bartlett suggested that memory was not fixed, but changed as people actively reconstructed episodes to fit their preexisting schemas.
Jean Piaget used schemas to explain how children acquire new skills and learn to interact with the world. After being scared by a large, aggressive dog, a child may develop the schema that four-legged creatures are dangerous. When confronted by similar dogs, the child may react with fear. Piaget referred to the application of an existing schema to a different stimulus as “assimilation.” However, when exposed to a small, well-behaved dog, the child might react positively. Piaget referred to the modification of an existing schema (or the creation of an entirely new schema) to fit a new stimulus as “accommodation.” Piaget suggested that assimilation and accommodation are the bases of adaptation (i.e., learning) and define the stages of cognitive development.
There are many different kinds of schemas (what follows is by no means an exhaustive list): role schemas (e.g., the role of a student vs. that of a teacher), event schemas (e.g., what happens at a cocktail party vs. a football game), self schemas (i.e., what we think of ourselves either globally or in specific domains), relationship schemas (e.g., the relationship with one’s mother vs. one’s best friend), trait schemas (e.g., what shy people are like vs. outgoing people), procedural schemas (e.g., how to make coffee vs. how to put gas in a car), stereotypes (i.e., schemas concerning members of social groups; e.g., the cognitive ability of the young vs. the elderly), and scripts (i.e., how to act in certain situations; e.g., ordering food at a fast food restaurant vs. a fine dining establishment).
Schemas are thought to be functional. They help to organize and understand the world and to fill in informational gaps. They also reduce ambiguity and serve as memory guides, directing our attention to relevant aspects in the environment. However, the overuse of schemas can result in stereotypes. For example, a 2001 study by Brian K. Payne found that when participants were shown a picture of a person’s face followed by a picture of either a tool or a gun, the race of the face influenced whether people misidentified pictures of tools as weapons. Even though participants were told to ignore the first picture showing a person, they were more likely to report tools as weapons when the pictures were paired with black faces. This tendency for previously viewed stimuli to activate schemas and influence perceptions—even in very different situations—is known as priming.
SEE ALSO Piaget, Jean; Priming; Racism; Script Models; Stereotypes
Bartlett, Frederick C. 1932. Remembering: A Study in Experimental and Social Psychology. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
Kant, Immanuel. 1781. Critique of Pure Reason. Trans. Norman Kemp Smith. New York: Modern Library, 1958.
Payne, Brian K. 2001. Prejudice and Perception: The Role of Automatic and Controlled Processes in Misperceiving a Weapon. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 81 (2): 181–192.
Piaget, Jean. 1969. The Psychology of the Child. Trans. Helen Weaver. New York: Basic Books.
Taylor, Shelly E., and Jennifer Crocker. 1981. Schematic Bases of Social Information Processing. In Social Cognition. Vol. 1 of The Ontario Symposium, eds. E. Tory Higgins, C. Peter Herman, and Mark P. Zanna, 89–134. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
Scott T. Wolf