How Social Schemas Theory and Related Research Contributes to Our Understanding of the Way in Which People Evaluate and React in Their Social Environment

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How social schemas theory and related research contributes to our understanding of the way in which people evaluate and react in their social environment

Cognitive representations of social situations are referred to as 'schemas'. These are mental structures, active in our brain, providing us with a knowledge store which determines how we view our social surroundings. These schemas are built from organised pre-registered data which determine our reactions to, and perceptions of, everyday life activity. They have different category identification, including person, role and event schemas, each a mental structure of a particular trait, role or situation.

This assignment aims to evaluate our understanding of the social environment using the contributions resultant from social schemas theory and other related research. We will discuss evidence, that both supports and rejects this claim, including strengths, weaknesses and limitations.

The concept of schemas was first introduced by Bartlett (1932). He used it to examine how schemas could affect memory by asking participants to recall a story at different retention periods. He found that the story became distorted each time it was recalled, thus fitting with the participant's own schemas of culture, roles and events. “Using more recent terminology, Barlett was suggesting that the knowledge contained within schemata operates in a top-down fashion to influence the processes of perception and memory.” (Brace & Roth, 2007, p.132). In other words the information is flowing down from the stored knowledge within the brain.

Schemas do affect memory process knowledge, both in a positive and negative sense. In a positive way they do simplify reality, and help us to make sense of current experiences and situations that we become involved in. However, on the negative side, they process incoming situation data and provide a standard response, based on previous experiences of similiar situations, thus preventing a precise response to the actual current situation. Schemas are useful concepts in helping us understand how we organise our knowledge. They make the world seem predictable, allowing us to make sense of how situations will progress and evolve, but as already mentioned because they provide a standard response, based on historial data, they delay the precise response to the relevant circumstance. This distracts from the ability to immediately interact in the situation. “For example, when we meet a person for the first time, we don't have to treat everything about them as having equal informational value – we can quickly categorize them in terms of a schema, and apply an interpretative framework that tells us what is relevant and what isn't. As they work to cut down on irrelevant information, schemas also provide us with additional information that is relevant. This information tells us what to expect, and thus schemas also make the world more predictable”. (Buchanan, Anand, Joffe & Thomas, 2007, p.65-66).

Also on the downside, schemas are assumptions that can sometimes be incorrect. Our thinking can become distorted leading us to believe that every similar situation we encounter will result in the same outcome, because our stored knowledge, based on similar historic circumstances, directs our thought pattern to the same conclusion, thus pre-determining the situation result, rather than allowing an open-minded approach. We apply stereotypes to people based on prior assumptions.

Darley and Gross (1983) conducted an experiment to show that sterotypes have the power to shape our assumptions. They showed video tapes of a fictional actress called Hannah to a group of US students. Hannah was portrayed in one video as a 'lower class citizen', whilst another portrayed her as a 'high class citizen'. Some students were also shown a video of Hannah answering questions in an oral examination. The examiner specified if Hannah's answers were...
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