What Is a Schema in Psychology? Definition and Examples

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A schema is a cognitive structure that serves as a framework for one’s knowledge about people, places, objects, and events. Schemas help people organize their knowledge of the world and understand new information. While these mental shortcuts are useful in helping us make sense of the large amount of information we encounter on a daily basis, they can also narrow our thinking and result in stereotypes.

Key Takeaways: Schema

  • A schema is a mental representation that enables us to organize our knowledge into categories.
  • Our schemas help us simplify our interactions with the world. They are mental shortcuts that can both help us and hurt us.
  • We use our schemas to learn and think more quickly. However, some of our schemas may also be stereotypes that cause us to misinterpret or incorrectly recall information.
  • There are many types of schemas, including object, person, social, event, role, and self schemas.
  • Schemas are modified as we gain more information. This process can occur through assimilation or accommodation.

Schema: Definition and Origins

The term schema was first introduced in 1923 by developmental psychologist Jean Piaget. Piaget proposed a stage theory of cognitive development that utilized schemas as one of its key components. Piaget defined schemas as basic units of knowledge that related to all aspects of the world. He suggested that different schemas are mentally applied in appropriate situations to help people both comprehend and interpret information. To Piaget, cognitive development hinges on an individual acquiring more schemas and increasing the nuance and complexity of existing schemas.

The concept of schema was later described by psychologist Frederic Bartlett in 1932. Bartlett conducted experiments that tested how schemas factored into people’s memory of events. He said that people organize concepts into mental constructs he dubbed schemas. He suggested that schemas help people process and remember information. So when an individual is confronted with information that fits their existing schema, they will interpret it based on that cognitive framework. However, information that doesn’t fit into an existing schema will be forgotten.

Examples of Schemas

For example, when a child is young, they may develop a schema for a dog. They know a dog walks on four legs, is hairy, and has a tail. When the child goes to the zoo for the first time and sees a tiger, they may initially think the tiger is a dog as well. From the child’s perspective, the tiger fits their schema for a dog.

The child’s parents may explain that this is a tiger, a wild animal. It is not a dog because it doesn’t bark, it doesn’t live in people's houses, and it hunts for its food. After learning the differences between a tiger and a dog, the child will modify their existing dog schema and create a new tiger schema.

As the child grows older and learns more about animals, they will develop more animal schemas. At the same time, their existing schemas for animals like dogs, birds, and cats will be modified to accommodate any new information they learn about animals. This is a process that continues into adulthood for all kinds of knowledge.

Types of Schemas

There are many kinds of schemas that assist us in understanding the world around us, the people we interact with, and even ourselves. Types of schemas include:

  • Object schemas, which help us understand and interpret inanimate objects, including what different objects are and how they work. For example, we have a schema for what a door is and how to use it. Our door schema may also include subcategories like sliding doors, screen doors, and revolving doors.
  • Person schemas, which are created to help us understand specific people. For instance, one’s schema for their significant other will include the way the individual looks, the way they act, what they like and don’t like, and their personality traits.
  • Social schemas, which help us understand how to behave in different social situations. For example, if an individual plans to see a movie, their movie schema provides them with a general understanding of the type of social situation to expect when they go to the movie theater.
  • Event schemas, also called scripts, which encompass the sequence of actions and behaviors one expects during a given event. For example, when an individual goes to see a movie, they anticipate going to the theater, buying their ticket, selecting a seat, silencing their mobile phone, watching the movie, and then exiting the theater.
  • Self-schemas, which help us understand ourselves. They focus on what we know about who we are now, who we were in the past, and who we could be in the future.
  • Role schemas, which encompass our expectations of how a person in a specific social role will behave. For example, we expect a waiter to be warm and welcoming. While not all waiters will act that way, our schema sets our expectations of each waiter we interact with.

Modification of Schema

As our example of the child changing their dog schema after encountering a tiger illustrates, schemas can be modified. Piaget suggested that we grow intellectually by adjusting our schemas when new information comes from the world around us. Schemas can be adjusted through:

  • Assimilation, the process of applying the schemas we already possess to understand something new.
  • Accommodation, the process of changing an existing schema or creating a new one because new information doesn’t fit the schemas one already has.

Impact on Learning and Memory

Schemas help us interact with the world efficiently. They help us categorize incoming information so we can learn and think more quickly. As a result, if we encounter new information that fits an existing schema, we can efficiently understand and interpret it with minimal cognitive effort.

However, schemas can also impact what we pay attention to and how we interpret new information. New information that fits an existing schema is more likely to attract an individual’s attention. In fact, people will occasionally change or distort new information so it will more comfortably fit into their existing schemas.

In addition, our schemas impact what we remember. Scholars William F. Brewer and James C. Treyens demonstrated this in a 1981 study. They individually brought 30 participants into a room and told them that the space was the office of the principal investigator. They waited in the office and after 35 seconds were taken to a different room. There, they were instructed to list everything they remembered about the room they had just been waiting in. Participants’ recall of the room was much better for objects that fit into their schema of an office, but they were less successful at remembering objects that didn’t fit their schema. For example, most participants remembered that the office had a desk and a chair, but only eight recalled the skull or bulletin board in the room. In addition, nine participants claimed that they saw books in the office when in reality there weren’t any there.

How Our Schemas Get Us Into Trouble

The study by Brewer and Trevens demonstrates that we notice and remember things that fit into our schemas but overlook and forget things that don’t. In addition, when we recall a memory that activates a certain schema, we may adjust that memory to better fit that schema.

So while schemas can help us efficiently learn and understand new information, at times they may also derail that process. For instance, schemas can lead to prejudice. Some of our schemas will be stereotypes, generalized ideas about whole groups of people. Whenever we encounter an individual from a certain group that we have a stereotype about, we will expect their behavior to fit into our schema. This can cause us to misinterpret the actions and intentions of others.

For example, we may believe anyone who is elderly is mentally compromised. If we meet an older individual who is sharp and perceptive and engage in an intellectually stimulating conversation with them, that would challenge our stereotype. However, instead of changing our schema, we might simply believe the individual was having a good day. Or we might recall the one time during our conversation that the individual seemed to have trouble remembering a fact and forget about the rest of the discussion when they were able to recall information perfectly. Our dependence on our schemas to simplify our interactions with the world may cause us to maintain incorrect and damaging stereotypes.

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