A script is a type of schema, or implicit mental representation, that describes an expected sequence of events. Scripts are developed from experiences with particular situations, from which information is abstracted and organized so as to guide thinking, feeling, and behavior when encountering similar experiences in the future. In a collaboration between the fields of artificial intelligence and social psychology, Roger Schank and Robert Abelson (1977) introduced a script model to explain people’s understanding of socially stereotypic events such as eating at a restaurant. From the fields of social, personality, and clinical psychology, a script model has been employed to understand people’s experience of emotionally significant and personally idiosyncratic events such as negotiating relationship conflict (Baldwin 1992). For example, a script might specify that in the context of conflict with an intimate other, if the other expresses anger, the self will feel regret and act submissively to achieve resolution of the conflict.
Models of scripts for socially stereotypic events emphasize that scripts enable people to automatically comprehend a variety of experiences through a cognitive structure that provides both power and economy. Models of scripts for personally significant events emphasize that scripts serve an individual’s motivation to anticipate and deal with emotional experiences to maximize positive emotion and minimize negative emotion. In either case, script models depict people as creating scripts by extracting the important elements of scenes they have experienced and connecting similar scenes together. Evidence suggests that children less than one year old begin to make such connections between scenes; for example, they cry in anticipation of pain upon seeing a doctor and needle a few months after getting an inoculation. Culture plays a role in the formation of scripts; for example, Utku Eskimos construe being alone as social isolation and feel loneliness, whereas Tahitians see being alone as an opportunity for spirits to cause uncanny feelings and fear. The intrafamilial environment is also important; for example, childhood patterns of relations with parents are significantly related to adult scripts about love relationships.
Research has shown that scripts facilitate processing of and memory for script-relevant information; provide inferences in the face of missing information; guide interpretation of ambiguous situations; promote script-confirming patterns of thought, emotion, and behavior; and are associated with individual differences in personality. Scripts can also have maladaptive consequences if applied when not relevant, leading to inappropriate inferences or recall. Scripts with problematic content can lead to mal-adaptive thinking, emotion, and behavior patterns associated with psychopathology. In general, scripts are more easily modified by experience when they are first being developed, but at a certain point they become resistant to change in the face of incongruent experience. Mildly inconsistent and peripheral information will be ignored or discounted; however, information that is highly inconsistent and highly central may undermine the script itself. For example, individuals who suffer a traumatic loss are often unable to sustain their construal of the world as meaningful. Methods for changing maladaptive scripts require more research, but one model of therapy proposes that the relationship between therapist and client undermines a maladaptive interpersonal script by presenting recurrent experiences that are emotionally significant and substantially incongruent.
SEE ALSO Culture; Memory; Personality; Schemas; Social Information Processing; Stereotypes
Baldwin, Mark W. 1992. Relational Schemas and the Processing of Social Information. Psychological Bulletin 112 (3): 461–484.
Schank, Roger, and Robert Abelson. 1977. Scripts, Plans, Goals, and Understanding. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
Amy P. Demorest