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Schema Theory

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Schema Theory

Every day offers new experiences and sensations that the brain must interpret. We then store this new information in our memory. Usually, you have encountered familiar objects before or can associate objects with other objects. For example, when you go watch a film with friends, you associate it with popcorn, a drink, snacks, and a dark theatre.

This group of information has been organised in your brain and based on the associations, these topics are now associated with each other. We call this a schema, a term first coined by Piaget (although the concept existed before).

Schema theory is part of the cognitive approach. It attempts to explain how information is organised and used to understand other, more recent information. Schema theory assumes schemas influence cognition and behaviour.

A schema is a cognitive framework for how the brain organises and stores information to understand complex information, e.g., how we understand the self, others, concepts, and the world.

Think of a schema as the skeletal frame of a concept that you can build upon as you experience new events.

What are the characteristics of the schema theory? Let's look at some schema theory examples and determine its importance.


Schema Theory Memory Framework skeleton model StudySmarterFramework skeleton model a schema, Flaticon

What is the 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.

An example of schema theory: a child first imagines a dog as an animal with four legs, fur, and a tail. However, as the child gets older, 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.

This information is used to learn and interpret new concepts, and it 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.This ‘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.

Role of schemas

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 the event.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 Different people can generate different schemas of the same event StudySmarterDifferent people can generate different schemas of the same event, Flaticon

Characteristics of schema theory

The characteristics of the schema theory are:

  • The development of schemas is based on past experiences.

  • Schemas are dynamic; they are constantly changing/developing based on new information learned.

    • This process occurs through assimilation.

Assimilation schemas change based on new information that matches information already known.

  • Schemas are individualistic and rely on individual experiences;

    • The individual’s family, peers, society, and culture influence schemas.

When new information is inconsistent with or unfamiliar to previous schemas, schemas are then accommodated to adapt to face the problem.

So when a child sees a cat for the first time, his previous schema that an animal with four legs is a dog is adjusted to include the cat.

Types of schema

Some types of schema theory are:

  1. Self-schema information learned about oneself from experiences, others, and the world.

  2. Event schema also known as scripts, i.e., information learned about specific events or situations.

  3. Object schema learning about inanimate objects. This can be about the characteristics of the object: what it is and how to use it.

  4. Role schemas learning about expected behaviours according to expected social roles.

  5. Person schemas information you learn about others.

Schema Theory Types of schemas Self-schema StudySmarterSelf-schema information learned about oneself from experiences, others, and the world, Flaticon

Evaluation of the schema theory

In psychology, there are several approaches proposed to explain behaviour. Schema theory takes a cognitive approach to explain cognition, thought, and behaviour, which explains the importance of schema theory. Evaluation of schema theory should be considered when understanding and applying this theory to real-world situations.

Strengths of the schema theory

The strengths of the schema theory are:

  • It accounts for individualistic differences.
    • The theory considers that people are different and that their experiences influence thoughts and behaviour.
  • It takes into account family, peers, and cultural influences.
    • The theory states that other people and our culture influence our thoughts and behaviour. Significant differences have been found in the way individualistic and collectivistic cultures think. This finding shows that research should take into account cultural differences because it ensures the results are generalisable.
  • The fact that the theory has practical applications for understanding learning and memory processes shows the importance of schema theory.
    • The theory emphasises the importance of memory connections in the retrieval of memories (this could be useful in studying).
    • The theory can explain why people can remember details of an event differently even though they saw the same thing.

Weaknesses of the schema theory

The weaknesses of the schema theory are:

  • The theory can be considered reductionist.
    • Although the theory considers environmental factors, it ignores biological explanations. Research has established biological factors, such as neurochemistry and brain abnormalities, influence learning. Therefore, the theory does not consider all the important factors that affect schemas.
  • Schemas are not observable, and, therefore, it isn’t easy to measure them objectively and empirically.
    • Psychology has moved toward using scientific approaches to study phenomena to increase the validity and reliability of psychological research. However, because schemas are not directly observable, it is difficult to demonstrate the validity and reliability of the results. Moreover, since schemas are considered individualistic, the question arises as to whether we can reliably measure them.
  • Where schemas come from is still questioned.

    • For example, are we born with some basic schemas or do schemas develop as we encounter experiences? However, if schemas arise from schemas, it does not explain what determines babies’ behaviour.
  • Is there an evolutionary basis for schemas?

    • Babies’ thinking and behaviour have similarities, such as crying when hungry.
  • Stereotypes and harmful prejudices:

    • Stereotypes and prejudices are based on misunderstood schemas and can be difficult to overcome and reduce the ability to learn new information.

Schema Theory - Key takeaways

  • Schema theory is part of the cognitive approach. It attempts to explain how we organise information and use it to understand other, more recent information. Schema theory assumes schemas influence cognition and behaviour.
  • A schema is a cognitive framework for how the brain organises and stores information to understand complex data, such as how we know ourselves, others, and the world.
  • The schema theory model states that all our knowledge is organised into mental frames. We use this information to learn and interpret new concepts.
  • Schemas develop from past experiences; they are dynamic and based on individual experiences.
  • There are different schemas, such as self-schemas, role schemas, and event schemas.

Frequently Asked Questions about Schema Theory

Schema theory is part of the cognitive approach. It attempts to explain how we organise information and used it to understand other, more recent information. Schema theory assumes schemas influence cognition and behaviour. 

Stereotypes are an example of a schema in psychology.

Three examples of schemas in psychology are:

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

Piaget’s schema theory suggests we are born with some innate schemas that develop as humans get older and experience more events. 

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.

Final Schema Theory Quiz

Question

What is schema theory in psychology?

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Answer

The schema theory is a cognitive theory that suggests that our knowledge is organised into mental frameworks/representations used to understand the self, others, concepts and the world. 

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Question

What are the strengths of the schema theory?

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Answer

The strengths of the schema theory are: 

  • It accounts for individualistic differences.
  • It takes into account family, peers, and cultural influences.
  • The fact that the theory has practical applications for understanding learning and memory processes shows the importance of schema theory.

Show question

Question

What are the weaknesses of the schema theory?

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Answer

The weaknesses of the schema theory are: 

  • The theory can be considered reductionist.
  • Schemas are not observable, and, therefore, it isn’t easy to measure them objectively and empirically.
  • Where schemas originate from is still questioned.

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Question

Can schemas influence the accuracy of memories?

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Answer

Yes.

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Question

Which of the following characteristics assimilation affects? 

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Answer

Dynamic.

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Question

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

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Answer

Self-schema.

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Question

Which type of schema matches the following description: ‘deciding to support the local mayor and community’.

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Answer

Role schema.

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Question

Does the schema theory predict that schemas are based only on individualistic experiences?

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Answer

No.

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Question

What type of mental functions are schemas?

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Answer

Higher-level.

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Question

How are schemas used as reference templates?

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Answer

The process of understanding new information involves comparing it with pre-existing schemas by trying to identify similar features. When they find a similar schema, the individual uses it as a reference template to generalise the phenomena. 

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Question

How do schemas save cognitive energy?

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Answer

Schemas save cognitive energy by providing a shortcut to faster processing of a lot of information. This ‘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.

Show question

Question

What is a schema?

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Answer

A schema is a cognitive framework for how the brain organises and stores information to understand complex information, e.g., how we understand the self, others, concepts, and the world.

Show question

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