In cognitive psychology, a schema is a mental structure used to hold, store, record, and recall information. Schemata (the plural of schema) help us to organize information in our minds.
Types of schema include:
- Object schema
- Role schema
- Person schema
- Event schema
Without mental schemata, we wouldn’t be able to make mental representations of the world or develop coherent understandings.
But schemata can also cause us to experience cognitive bias, use mental shortcuts (heuristics) that lead us to make mistakes, and fall prey to stereotypes based on archetypes of people that we bank in our brains (and that are often based on incomplete media representations).
How Cognitive Schemata Work
Schemata can be amended based on new information that we receive, allowing us to learn. Thorough learning, our cognitive schemata get more complex and we develop a more nuanced understanding of the world.
For example, if someone has a schema for dogs, it may hold information about how many legs its has, how it behaves, and whether it is friendly or scary.
When that person encounters a new dog, they will recall their existing ‘dog’ schema to make sense of the dog and make decisions about how to interact with it. But if the new dog is scary, untrained, or has three legs, we might experience cognitive disequilibrium: that’s not what our dog schema expected! In these cases, we use cognitive processes called accommodation and assimilation to amend our schema based on the new information.
- Assimilation: Improving existing knowledge of something thanks to new but congruent information.
- Accommodation: Amending existing knowledge of something thanks to new information that contradicts previous thinking.
Types of Schema
1. Object Schema
An object schema is perhaps the most basic type of cognitive schema. It holds information about objects – chairs, dogs, cars, tables, and so on.
When babies start making sense of their world, they might start with very basic object schemata. Their object schema for table might also include chairs because they both have four legs. As they gain experiences in the world, their ability to place objects into their own correct schemata becomes more and more complex.
An object schema may include information about the features, functions, and uses of objects. It may also hold warnings about the dangers of objects or positive affect about objects a child likes, such as their safety blanket or toys.
2. Person Schema
A person schema holds information about people. A child’s first person schema might be about their parents.
For example, according to Bowlby’s attachment theory, babies first start to find out who their primary caregiver is at around 3 months of age. At this point, their ‘parent’ schema is very basic.
As the child grows older, they may begin to develop a preference for one carer based on their schema of that parent, which associates warmth and comfort with one parent.
With time, the child will be exposed to more and more different types of people in the world, and they’ll create a schema for each person they come across.
Eventually, archetypes and stereotypes for certain types of people will develop, as well as how those people fit in the social hierarchy. This leads to our next type of schema: the role schema.
3. Role Schema
A role schema holds information about the social roles and positions of people in society. All societies have social stratification upon which people earn social status. It’s your role schema that holds this information.
The role schema likely holds information about how to act in certain situations based upon your social status, how to show respect and deference to certain people, and what is socially expected of you.
Multiple factors go into a role schema, and each are culturally constructed. Examples include:
- Ascribed status – Your understanding of a person’s social status at birth.
- Achieved status – Your understanding of a person’s achievements that grant them cultural and social capital.
- Gender roles – Your understanding (and personal beliefs about) gender stereotypes and how people expect you to behave based upon your gender. (See a subtype: gender schema.)
- Master status – the most prominent social status you hold.
Your personal role schema will hold information about your personal identity: your status as a student, your status in your workplace, your gender, race, and social class, and so forth.
Each of these social positions will hold certain privileges and constraints that you will have mentally ‘banked’ in your mind, and you’ll use this knowledge to influence how you interact with others.
Cognitive disequilibrium may occur when you experience role conflict. You may be expected to occupy two social roles at once that may, at times, conflict: good mother and good employee, student and full-time worker, and so on. At these times, your role schema may be amended through accommodation and assimilation based upon your experiences.
A person’s self schema refers to how they perceive themself. Parents and teachers spend a lot of time trying to help a young person positive a positive self-schema, or what we might call a positive sense of self.
Your self-schema might start with preferences: I like… and I dislike … Media theorists often also argue that a self-schema is heavily influenced by media, which presents stereotypes into which each child feels they fit: “Boys are like…” and “Girls are like…”
Your self-schema is also influenced by other people’s interactions with you. If the people around you talk you down or make you feel like an outsider, you’ll learn about who you are in a negative way. By contrast, if your parents are supportive and instil in you an internal locus of control, you are more likely to develop a positive self concept.
But like all schemata, a self-schema can change with new information. For example, I thought I didn’t like cauliflower my whole life; but somehow in my 30s, I began to develop a taste for it, and suddenly, I changed my self-schema: when people ask me what foods I dislike, cauliflower is no longer on the list.
5. Event Schema
An event schema is a schema about events. My favorite example of this is the event schema I developed as a child of church.
Growing up Catholic, my event schema for church was quite musty. We would dress well for church, turn up, sit in silence, listen to the priest, then go home.
But as a teenager, I went with my aunt to her charismatic-pentacostal church. Wow – my schema for church changed! There was a rock band and a lot of interaction between the pastor (a woman!) and the congregation throughout the mass.
Here, I had to assimilate new information into my existing schema for ‘church’ and make accommodations for two separate sub-schemata: my mother’s Catholic church and my aunt’s Pentacostal church.
The above types of schema are the most common that we teach in cognitive psychology. However, they’re by no means the only ways we can categorize cognitive schemata for the sake of thinking about the different ways our brains make sense of the world around us.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education.