Schemas in Psychology

From the moment we are born, we are given a lot of information. Our parents speak to us in a language that we eventually understand, we are taught rules that we eventually follow, and we witness memories that become lessons. As we grow up, the language becomes a way of communicating with people around us. We apply the rules we have learned to similar situations, often without question. Our memories shape the world around us. 

But how do we organize all of this information? How can we easily find the rules for behaving at a country club and apply them to how we behave in similar situations? 

For the answer, we turn to Schema Theory. This video is all about Schema Theory, how it helps our mind function, and how schema shape the way that we see the world. The more you know about schema, the easier it will be to understand your mind and make the best judgements about the world. 

What Are Schema? 

Let’s start out by defining Schema. It’s not the easiest concept to grasp without using a metaphor. So think of your mind as a filing cabinet. Inside the filing cabinet is everything that you’ve ever learned, experienced, or witnessed. That’s a lot of information to fit in one mind. Each piece of information is a schema. Schema are a framework of ideas and pattern of beliefs that we can use as we take in new information and seek to make sense of it. There are many types of schema that help us organize the world: social schema, trait schema, role schema, script schema and many more. 

Think of schema as little index cards that represent a concept. One “index card” schema could encompass what you know about Alex Trebek. Another schema could encompass what you know about Oxford commas. Or how to behave in a restaurant. 

Schema help us organize our thoughts and make it easier to pull from them when processing new information or memories. I’ll go more into how this works later, but just know that schema help to organize the mind. 

History of Schema Theory 

Schema are an abstract concept, so there is not one exact psychologist responsible for creating Schema Theory. Psychologists like Federic Barlett introduced the concept of abstract frameworks in the mind that organize information, but they didn’t have a name for them. 

The term schema is credited to Jean Piaget. Piaget was crucial for developing theories on how the mind works and the process of cognitive development. He is most famous for his work with children. 

Piaget observed as children developed schema and use them like building blocks. What starts out as very simple schema become more complex and begin to explain a longer list of concepts in the world. The first time a child attends a birthday party, for example, they may not have a solid schema for what will happen at the party. Through their experience at the party and by listening to their parents explain what is happening, they start to build the schema. The next time they hear about a birthday party or get an invitation, they will have more of a grasp of what is to come and how they should behave. 

Birthday parties fall under the category of “script schema,” or a type of schema that comes with a “script.” Other types of script schema include the concept of ordering at a restaurant, behaving at a sports game, or experiencing a break-up. 

Other types of schema include: 

  • Object schema
  • Social schema
  • Person schema
  • Role schema
  • Trait schema

Pulling From Schema to Understand The World 

We are meaning-making creatures, but our mind wants to make meaning without a lot of work and effort. That’s why the mind pulls from schema. They allow us to “fill in the blanks” and paint a picture of an event or a person. We don’t have to “repaint” that picture every time we meet a new person or go to a birthday party. 

This saves us time and energy, but can also produce inaccurate judgements. This is both a positive and a negative trait of schema. 

Schema Can Be Limiting

We have all heard a version of this riddle: 

“A father and son were in an accident. The father was killed immediately and the son was brought to the hospital for surgery. In the OR, a doctor came in, looked at the boy and said, ‘I can’t operate on him. He’s my son.’ 

Who is the doctor?” 

This riddle can be very frustrating if it stumps you. The answer is that the doctor is the boy’s mother. Unfortunately, due to our typical “picture” of a doctor or surgeon, we may not attribute the title to a woman or mother.

That “picture” of a doctor is the schema we have built of a doctor. For some people, the picture of a doctor is a man wearing a white lab coat and a stethoscope. That is the picture we pull whenever we hear the word “doctor.” This is where schema can become problematic. By pulling from schema, we may close ourselves off to information or thoughts that contradict what is in our “index card” of a concept. The schema we create can limit us. 

Stereotypes, limiting beliefs, and “old ways” may be formed by the schema we have built. 

Can You Change Your Schema? 

We all know someone who is “stuck” in their old ways. It seems impossible to change the schema they have created for different groups of people, how the world works, and how to behave. 

Can you really change the building blocks of how you think? Yes and no. It’s definitely possible to change the way you look at someone who you might have judged before. As you gain more experience and learn more about the world, your schema may start to change and you might start to have a more open mind about the people you meet and the places you go.

But you have to be open to change. You cannot just read a book and alter the way you see the world. Adjusting your thinking and opening your mind is a constant process that may require rewriting your story of the world and “unlearning” harmful stereotypes. This isn’t easy – challenging set beliefs is notoriously difficult and uncomfortable. But it’s possible, and with the right intention, you can help yourself create the most accurate and unbiased judgements when you receive new information.

Theodore T.

Theodore is a professional psychology educator with over 10 years of experience creating educational content on the internet. PracticalPsychology started as a helpful collection of psychological articles to help other students, which has expanded to a Youtube channel with over 2,000,000 subscribers and an online website with 500+ posts.