Schema Theory

How do we collect all the information about the world we experience and make sense of or organise it in our minds? What tells you that a German Shepherd is a dog? How do you know the difference between a teacher and a doctor? Schema theory is our natural process of filing information to make sense of everything surrounding us. 

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Contents
Table of contents
    • We are going to explore schema theory. First, we will establish the schema theory model.
    • Then, we will explore Piaget's theory of schemas.
    • Following this, we will discuss the different types of schemas, highlighting different schema examples to help illustrate our points.
    • Finally, we will analyse and establish the importance of schema theory.

    Schema Theory, man holding photographs of different memories, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Schema theory involves memories.

    Schema Theory Model

    The model of schema theory states all of our knowledge is organised into mental frameworks. Consider this example of schema theory in action.

    A child first imagines a dog as an animal with four legs, fur, and a tail. However, as the child grows, they will see different breeds of dogs. This knowledge will be added to their existing schema of dogs and animals. So their schema becomes more knowledgeable and may include a list of dog breeds.

    New information is used to learn and interpret new concepts and can sometimes be used to make predictions. This process is also used to make decisions, saving cognitive energy by providing a shortcut to faster processing of a lot of information. The ‘shortcut’ is essentially people generalising existing information. If a new concept or experience is similar to an existing schema, they use it to understand and predict the new concept.

    Schemas also influence behaviour because they:

    • Influence where we focus our attention.

    • Influence how we interpret and understand ourselves, others, and situations.

    • Influence how we behave in different situations.

    Stereotypes loosely rely on schemas. Although some stereotypes rely on caricatured versions of the truth, they are often misinformation born of ignorance.

    Be careful when relying on stereotypical information about other people and cultures.

    Piaget's Theory of Schema

    Piaget spent most of his career studying children, and during this time, Piaget understood that a child's mind develops through stages. Through these stages, Piaget theorised that children constantly struggle to understand the world around them and make sense of the information bombarding their brains.

    But how does a child's mind make sense of all the information they face? Piaget's theory states that as our brains mature, we build schemas or mental moulds into which we save our experiences. As we are compiling schemas through learning and experiencing life, we used what Piaget referred to as assimilation and accommodation.

    Assimilation allows us to take our new experiences and understand them according to the current schemas already filed in our brains.

    An example of assimilation is seeing a colourful parrot and listing this animal under birds in our brains because it, too, has wings, a beak, and the ability to fly.

    As we continue through life and learn at different ages, we accommodate the older information with any new information that comes our way. Often this happens when new information conflicts somewhat with old information.

    If all dogs have four legs, all four-legged animals must be dogs - but this isn't the case and may be confusing initially to a young child. They accommodate new information that other animals may have four legs into their existing schema, and it develops.

    Using the subject of birds from the previous example, one can understand that birds are too broad a genre. Learning that penguins are flightless and even swim can distort our previous schemas of what a bird means.

    Schema Theory, a photo of penguins on the beach, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Many different types of birds can make schemas on birds complex.

    Types of Schema Theory

    Different types of schema create the wireframe for the world we experience individually -- self-schema, event schema, object schema, role schema, gender schema, and person schema are all examples of different types of schema.

    Self-Schema

    How we organise the information about ourselves and the generalisations we have about who we are obtained from experiences are known as self-schema. Self-schemas are cultivated from what we think about, how we spend our time, and what we care about.

    What are common descriptors in self-schema? Self-schema identifiers can be our family and work roles in society, hobbies, and personal attributes associated with agreeableness and conscientiousness.

    Our life satisfaction (especially in old age) positively correlates with enacting one’s major identities.

    Event Schema

    Event schemas focus on behaviour patterns that should be followed for specific events. Event schemas are scripts that inform us of what to do, what to say, or how to act in a particular situation. Much like being taught manners of saying "Please" and "Thank-you".

    You are cooking a meal in the kitchen when suddenly the sleeve of your jumper is on fire! What do you do? You may have been taught the Stop, drop, and roll method for just this event!

    Schema Theory, image of stop, drop, and roll emergency, StudySmarterFig. 3 - Event schemas can keep us safe.

    Object Schema

    How do we know what objects are? Object schema allows us to understand the multitude of objects around us. Object schema is why we can understand an individual object, how that object works or functions, and what we can expect from them.

    Role Schemas

    The norms and expectations of us as individuals with particular societal roles are called role schemas. Role schemas are broken into two categories: achieved and ascribed.

    Achieved roles come from professions or occupations such as police officers or teachers. Ascribed roles are social categories like gender or age.

    Gender Schemas

    Gender schemas fall under the umbrella of role schemas in society. Gender schemas are mental structures that organise information about gender categories and how people perceive the world about gender.

    An example of gender schemas is matching behaviour with the behaviour of what is believed to be appropriate for the gender they identify with.

    Person Schemas

    We also have schemas that pertain to the people in our lives, such as family and friends. What personal traits describe your best friend?

    Examples of person schemas for your friend could be their personality, behaviours, appearance, and likes and dislikes.

    Importance of Schema Theory

    Schemas are a higher-level cognitive function organising memories stored in long-term memory. They are used as reference templates when encountering new information. We try to understand the new information and compare it to existing schemas to identify similar features. When a similar schema is found, the person uses it as a reference schema to make generalisations about the phenomenon. This idea of a basic framework shows the importance of pre-existing knowledge and schemas in understanding new information. Schemas are reorganised when new information is experienced and understood.

    This explains why we get smarter as we get older.

    Schemas are thought to influence the retrieval of long-term memory and reconstructive memory.

    An example of how schemas can influence reconstructive memories is the case of a group of children who witnessed a fight. The children were then called to the principal’s office to recall the event. However, they all had different accounts of what happened because their schemas influenced how they interpreted it.

    For example, one child may have generalised based on previous schemas and concluded that it was self-defence, while another may have viewed it as bullying. This example suggests that schemas influence stored memories when later retrieved, explaining why memory retrieval is not always accurate.

    Schema Theory Examples

    Because our world has many schemas, tonnes of examples could be used. What's your favourite holiday? Is it Halloween? What comes to mind when you think of Halloween? Pumpkins, candy, costumes?

    Halloween schemas may include the colour orange, pumpkins, costumes of vampires and ghosts, and the month of October.

    If you didn't know what a Black Howler monkey was, could you picture it in your head? What does a monkey generally look like?

    Schema Theory, an image of a Black Howler monkey, StudySmarterFig. 4 - What schemas tell you that this is a monkey?

    Schema Theory - Key takeaways

    • The model of schema theory states all of our knowledge is organised into mental frameworks. Schemas are a higher-level cognitive function organising memories stored in long-term memory. They are used as reference templates when encountering new information.
    • Piaget's theory states that as our brains mature, we build schemas or mental moulds into which we save our experiences.
    • Different types of schema create the wireframe for the world that we experience individually: self-schema, event schema, object schema, role schema, gender schema, and persona schema.
    • As we are compiling schemas through learning and experiencing life, we used what Piaget referred to as assimilation and accommodation.
    • Assimilation allows us to take our new experiences and understand them according to the current schemas already filed in our brains. Accommodation modifies existing schemas to fit in new information.

    References

    1. Yucatán black howler, Jarble, commons.wikimedia.org, CC-BY-2.0
    Frequently Asked Questions about Schema Theory

    What is schema theory in psychology?

    Schema theory is part of the cognitive approach. The model of schema theory states all of our knowledge is organised into mental frameworks. Schema theory assumes schemas influence cognition and behaviour. 

    What is an example of a schema in psychology? 

    Stereotypes are an example of a schema in psychology.

    What are the 3 types of schema in psychology? 

    Three examples of schemas in psychology are:


    • Self-schemas.
    • Event schemas.
    • Role schemas.

    What is Piaget’s schema theory?

    Piaget used schemas in his work. Piaget’s schema theory suggests equilibration occurs in children when assimilating and accommodating information into schemas.

    How does schema affect perception? 

    Schemas affect perception by influencing what we pay attention to. Information similar to what we already know will be more easily assimilated and generally accepted. Inconsistent information is harder to adapt to, and schemas can be problematic when learning new, confronting information.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Can schemas influence the accuracy of memories?

    Which of the following characteristics assimilation affects? 

    Which type of schema matches the following description: ‘learning that your favourite brand of chocolate is Cadbury’s’.

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