A schema is a cognitive representation of a concept, its associated characteristics, and how those characteristics are interrelated. Social schemas are representations of social concepts and may include notions of physical appearance, traits, behavioral information, and functions. Social schemas may be relatively concrete (e.g., one’s fifth-grade teacher) or abstract (e.g., likable person). When a schema is activated, the characteristics of the concept are evoked spontaneously. For example, the concept “librarian” may bring to mind a drably attired unmarried woman, who is quiet, reads books, and helps one conduct a literature search. Those characterizations may be entirely false in general, and certainly many specific librarians will differ from that stereotype, but they are the characteristics that the observer associates with the concept. Although social schemas for the same concept vary somewhat from person to person, observers who share a common culture or upbringing often hold strikingly similar schemas. In short, social schemas comprise the expectations that observers have for the characteristics and behavior of themselves, other people, and social situations.
Types of Social Schemas
Observers develop schemas for individual social roles (e.g., librarians) and social groups (e.g., ethnic and cultural outgroups). Schemas for social groups fall under the rubric of stereotypes, and the basic principles discussed later apply to them as well as to other types of schemas.
An event schema, sometimes termed a script, prescribes a chronological order to the relation among the characteristics. Going out to dinner at a four-star restaurant, one expects first to be greeted, then guided to a table, then order drinks, and so forth. Violation of the event schema (e.g., a pronounced delay in ordering drinks) may elicit surprise and possible substitution of another script. Scripts that additionally require causal coherence among the characteristics are termed narratives. In a murder trial, for instance, a prosecuting attorney may outline a plausible sequence of events that explains the body of evidence. In a related vein, people form excuses by purporting a narrative of unforeseeable and unavoidable events, thereby reducing their apparent responsibility for negative outcomes. Schemas thus can play an important role in how people understand the causes of behavior and events.
A self-schema is an integrated collection of knowledge, beliefs, attitudes, and memories about the self. Self-schemas may develop around personality traits, roles in relationships, occupations, activities, opinions, and other characteristics that are part of an individual’s definition of self. Typically, individuals form self-schemas for characteristics that they believe to be important or central to who they are. In other words, individuals are schematic on central characteristics, but may be aschematic on less central characteristics. For example, individuals who believe that their friendliness is a particularly defining characteristic of their self-concepts probably have a self-schema for friendliness. If such individuals do not consider politics interesting or important, they likely are aschematic on a dimension such as political activism.
Self-schemas, and schemas in general, may vary in their degree of complexity. For example, some people might off-handedly acknowledge their own intelligence, but may view friendliness as more self-defining and important. Their mental representation of friendliness would be more complex, including detailed memories of their own friendly behaviors, stable beliefs about the causes and consequences of friendliness, and certainty about their own friendliness. They also might categorize other people’s behaviors in terms of friendliness, thereby using the self-schema as a filter for interpreting their social world.
Uses of Social Schemas
Schemas can affect whether observers notice information as well as the inferences that they draw about that information. Specifically, schemas can affect how observers categorize a situation or group, process information about it, and then remember that information. Schemas encourage information processing through the schematic lens, often overlooking the unique qualities of the social situation or person. For example, a library patron hurrying to find assistance may notice and approach a drably attired person perusing a heavy reference volume, only to suffer embarrassment when the person denies being the librarian. Relying primarily on the librarian schema led to a categorization error. Later, when the actual librarian is identified, the hurried patron notices sensible shoes and eyeglasses, but misses schema-irrelevant qualities such as the tarnished school ring and brown eyes. Generally speaking, schema-consistent information is noticed and remembered better than schema-irrelevant information, sometimes yielding judgment errors.
The previous example also illustrates that schema use is influenced by observer goals. The patron has a pressing goal to find immediate assistance. Thus, the patron relies on the librarian schema and schema-consistent information to accelerate the process. If the patron had a different goal or fewer time constraints, the impression formation process likely would change. For instance, if the patron hopes to contest a large library fee, a more careful search process might be desired. An accuracy goal generally discourages reliance on schemas and encourages attention to unique behaviors and qualities in forming impressions. When seeking accuracy, even schema-inconsistent information may be remembered better than it typically would be because observers feel compelled to expend extra effort to reconcile such information in light of the schema.
Implications of Schemas
In general, schemas help to organize social information and facilitate navigation through social environments. This organization allows people to use fewer cognitive resources in the detection and interpretation of schema-relevant information, thus increasing efficiency and sparing important resources that could be used for interacting with novel and complex stimuli. However, overreliance upon schemas may lead observers to miss important information. For instance, mistaking a patron for the librarian both interferes with the search for the real librarian and yields an embarrassing interaction with the nonlibrarian. When relying on schemas to guide social experiences, the cost of missing important information must be weighed against the benefit of efficiency.
- Fiske, S. T., & Taylor, S. E. (1991). Social cognition (2nd ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill.
- Kunda, Z. (2001). Social cognition: Making sense of people. Cambridge: MIT Press.