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What Is a Schema in Psychology?

A Schema in Psychology is a cognitive structure that serves as a framework for understanding people, places, objects, and events. Schemas assist people in organizing their knowledge of the world and comprehending new information. While these mental shortcuts can help us make sense of the vast amount of information we encounter on a daily basis, they can also limit our thinking and lead to stereotypes.

Key Takeaways: Schema in Psychology

A schema is a mental representation that allows us to categories our knowledge.

Our schemas aid in the simplification of our interactions with the world. They are mental shortcuts that can benefit or harm us.

We use schemas to learn and think faster. However, some of our schemas may be stereotypes that cause us to misinterpret or recall information incorrectly.

Object, person, social, event, role, and self schemas are just a few examples.

As we learn more, we modify our schemas. This can happen through assimilation or accommodation.

Definition and History of Schema in Psychology

Jean Piaget, a developmental psychologist, coined the term schema in 1923. Piaget proposed a stage theory of cognitive development, with schemas as a key component. Piaget defined schemas as fundamental units of knowledge that encompassed all aspects of the world. He proposed that various schemas are mentally applied in appropriate situations to assist people in both comprehending and interpreting information. Cognitive development, according to Piaget, is dependent on an individual acquiring more schemas and increasing the nuance and complexity of existing schemas.

In 1932, psychologist Frederic Bartlett described the concept of schema. Bartlett ran experiments to see how schemas affected people’s memory of events. He claimed that people organise ideas into mental constructs known as schemas. He proposed that schemas assist people in processing and remembering information. When a person is presented with information that matches their existing schema, they will interpret it using that cognitive framework. Information that does not fit into an existing schema, on the other hand, will be lost.

Schema in Psychology Examples

A child, for example, may form a schema for a dog when they are young. They understand that a dog has four legs, is furry, and has a tail. When the child visits the zoo for the first time and sees a tiger, he or she may mistake it for a dog. The tiger corresponds to the child’s mental image of a dog.

The parents of the child may explain that this is a tiger, a wild animal. It is not a dog because it does not bark, does not live in people’s homes, and does not hunt for food. The child will modify their existing dog schema and create a new tiger schema after learning the differences between a tiger and a dog.

More animal schemas will emerge as the child grows older and learns more about animals. At the same time, they will modify their existing schemas for animals such as dogs, birds, and cats to accommodate any new information they learn about animals. For all types of knowledge, this is a process that continues into adulthood.

Types of Schema in Psychology?

There are various types of schemas that help us understand our surroundings, the people we interact with, and even ourselves. Schemas of various types include:

Object schemas

which assist us in understanding and interpreting inanimate objects, such as what different objects are and how they function. We have a schema for what a door is and how to use it, for example. Sliding doors, screen doors, and revolving doors are examples of subcategories in our door schema.

Person schemas

They are created to assist us in understanding specific people. For example, one’s schema for their significant other will include the individual’s appearance, behaviour, likes and dislikes, and personality traits.

Social schemas

They are mental models that help us understand how to behave in various social situations. For example, if a person plans to see a movie, their movie schema gives them a general understanding of the type of social situation they can expect when they go to the theatre.

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Event schemas

It also known as scripts, contain the expected sequence of actions and behaviours during a given event. For example, when a person goes to the movies, they anticipate going to the theatre, purchasing a ticket, selecting a seat, turning off their phone, watching the movie, and then exiting the theatre.


That assist us in understanding ourselves. They concentrate on what we know about who we are now, who we have been in the past, and who we might become in the future.

Role schemas

Our expectations of how someone in a specific social role will behave. A waiter, for example, should be friendly and welcoming. While not all waiters will behave in this manner, our schema establishes our expectations of each waiter with whom we interact.

Schema Modification

Schemas can be changed, as illustrated by the child who changed their dog schema after meeting a tiger. Piaget proposed that we develop intellectually by adjusting our schemas in response to new information from our surroundings. Schemas can be modified by:

Assimilation is the process of using our existing Schema in Psychology to understand something new.

Accommodation is the process of changing an existing schema or developing a new one in response to new information that does not fit the schemas that are already in place.

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Influence on Learning and Memory

Schemas allow us to interact with the world more effectively. They assist us in categorising incoming information, allowing us to learn and think more quickly. As a result, when we come across new information that matches an existing schema, we can quickly understand and interpret it with little cognitive effort.

Schemas, on the other hand, can influence what we pay attention to and how we interpret new information. Individuals are more likely to pay attention to new information that fits an existing schema. In fact, people will occasionally change or distort new information to better fit into their pre-existing schemas.

Furthermore, our schemas influence what we remember. In a 1981 study, scholars William F. Brewer and James C. Treyens demonstrated this. They each brought 30 participants into a room and told them it was the principal investigator’s office. They waited in the office for 35 seconds before being taken to another room. They were instructed to write down everything they remembered about the room they had just waited in.

Participants’ recall of the room was much better for objects that fit into their schema of an office, but they were less successful with objects that did not fit into their schema. For example, while the majority of participants remembered the office having a desk and a chair, only eight remembered the skull or bulletin board in the room. Furthermore, nine participants claimed to have seen books in the office when there were none.

How Our Schemas Cause Us Problems

Brewer and Trevens’ research shows that we notice and remember things that fit into our schemas while overlooking and forgetting things that don’t. Furthermore, when we recall a memory that activates a specific schema, we can modify that memory to better fit that schema.

So, while schemas can help us learn and understand new information more efficiently, they can also derail the process. Schemas, for example, can lead to prejudice. Some of our schemas will be stereotypes, or broad generalisations about entire groups of people. When we meet someone from a certain group about whom we have a stereotype, we expect their behaviour to conform to our expectations. As a result, we may misinterpret the actions and intentions of others.

For example, we may believe that anyone over the age of 65 is mentally ill. If we meet an older person who is sharp and perceptive and engage in intellectually stimulating conversation with them, our stereotype will be challenged. Instead of changing our schema, we might simply believe the person was having a good day. Or we might remember the one instance during our conversation when the individual appeared to be having difficulty remembering a fact and forget about the rest of the discussion when they were able to recall information perfectly. Our reliance on schemas to simplify our interactions with the world may lead us to maintain inaccurate and harmful stereotypes.

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