Schemas: Psychology and Social Cognition

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Schema Theory

1. Introduction
A schema contains both abstract knowledge and specific examples about a particular social object. It ‘provides hypotheses about incoming stimuli, which includes plans for interpreting and gathering schema-related information. Schemas therefore give us some sense of prediction and control of the social world. They guide what we attend to, what we perceive, what we remember and what we infer. All schemas appear to serve similar functions – they all influence the encoding (taking in and interpretation) of new information, memory for old information and inferences about missing information. Not only are schemas functional, but they are also essential to our well-being. A dominant theme in social cognition research is that we are cognitive misers, economizing as much as we can on the effort we need to expend when processing information. So schemas are a kind of mental short-hand used to simplify reality and facilitate processing. Schema research has been applied to four main areas: person schemas, self-schemas, role schemas and event schemas (Fiske & Taylor, 1991). 2. Understanding Social perception

During the 1980s social cognition research began to posit that people apprehended and made sense of complex social information by simplifying and organizing this information into meaningful cognitive structures called schemas. The concept of schema has appeared in various psychological writings, but the most influential tradition of research, which preceded the work on social schema theory, was Bartlett’s book on Remembering (1932). Bartlett was an English psychologist whose research in the 1930s concerned human memory for pictures, figures and stories. He argued that people organize images and information into meaningful patterns and these patterns facilitate later memory recall. This view was different to the most dominant view at the time, which argued that people perceived and represented information as isolated elements. As with Bartlett’s work, early research in social schema theory suggested that people are better able to remember information when it is organized around a theme compared to when it is not. A schema is conceptualized as a cognitive structure, which contains general expectations and knowledge of the world. This may include general expectations about people, social roles, and events and how to behave in certain situations. Schema theory suggests that we use such mental structures to select and process incoming information from the social environment. Schemas take the form of general expectations learned through experience or socialization, and thus give us some sense of prediction and control of the social world. It would be very difficult to function if we went about our everyday life without prior knowledge or expectations about the people and events around us. As such, schemas are theorized to be functional and essential for our well-being. As existing mental structures, they help us to understand the complexity of social life. Schemas help guide what we attend to, what we perceive, what we remember and what we infer. They are like mental short-cuts we use to simplify reality. Early schema models posited that people are ‘cognitive misers’: many judgements and evaluations were said to be ‘top of the head’ phenomena (Taylor & Fiske, 1978), made with little thought or Social Cognition considered deliberation. This metaphor has been replaced however with one that views social thinking as more strategic and flexible: that people are more like ‘motivated tacticians’ (Fiske, 1992, 2004 Schema types

1. Person schemas are about individual people. These include schemas for particular individuals that you know; idealized, prototype person schemas for new people or strangers; schemas for personality traits; for types of people in different social contexts. Trait or person schemas enable us to answer the question: ‘what kind of person is he or she?’ (Cantor and Mischel,...
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