Self-Schema Definition

A  self-schema  is  a  cognitive  structure  involving some  aspect  of  the  self  that  is  considered  important to the individual, such as exercising or participating in a sport. It is derived from generalizations based on past experience. Self-schemas are not only an important part of our overall self-concept (i.e., how we think of ourselves) but they also serve to facilitate  the  processing  of  incoming  information and to guide behavior. For example, self-schemas are  thought  to  influence  what  we  notice,  how quickly  we  process  schema-related  information, what we remember, and what we do.

Background Information

The  term  self-schema  was  introduced  in  1977  by Hazel  Markus,  who  based  self-schema  theory  on cognitive  psychological  theory  and  research  on schemas  (or  schemata).  Schemas  contain  highly organized  knowledge  in  a  particular  domain. Consider,  for  example,  a  schema  for  a  physical object such as a chair. We cannot remember everything about every chair we have ever encountered. Instead,  we  form  a  concept  of  a  chair  that  contains  information  about  different  types  of  chairs, the  function  of  chairs,  how  you  sit  on  a  chair, and some experiences with chairs. Having a chair schema  allows  us  to  quickly  recognize  a  chair when we see one and to know what to do with it.

Just  as  there  are  schemas  for  physical  objects such as a chair, there are self-schemas for a variety of aspects of the self-including, but not limited to, personality traits (e.g., independence–dependence, assertiveness),  appearance,  gender,  race,  body weight,  sexuality,  fashion,  and  mathematical  or scientific self-schemas. There are also self-schemas involving  health-related  behaviors  such  as  drinking, dieting, eating healthy, and exercising.

Exercise and Sport-Specific Self-Schemas

Within   the   physical   activity   (PA)   literature, research  has  focused  on  exercise  self-schemas; sport-specific  (baseball  and  softball)  self-schemas have also been studied. Although the overall content  of  self-schemas  has  not  been  examined,  an exercise  self-schema,  for  example,  would  likely contain knowledge about what constitutes exercise (e.g., running, weight lifting), how to do the exercise  activity,  exercise-related  clothing  and  equipment,  exercise  outcomes  (e.g.,  increased  energy, weight  control),  the  physical  sensations  involved in  exercise  (e.g.,  the  feeling  of  pedaling  a  bicycle or  of  sweating),  as  well  as  how  one  feels  about doing different forms of exercise, one’s past exercise experiences, and so on.

Exercise Self-Schema Measurement and Terminology

To determine whether a person has a self-schema, researchers  can  use  reaction  time  (RT)  measures because  incoming  information  that  is  consistent with  highly  organized  knowledge  is  processed quickly. This strategy is seldom employed because it is impractical for most field studies and for studies  with  large  numbers  of  participants.  Instead, such  methodology  has  been  used  to  validate  a paper-and-pencil  self-report  measure  of  exercise self-schema status.

With  the  self-report  method,  ratings  are  made of both the self-descriptiveness and the importance to  the  individual’s  self-image  of  three  exercise-related phrases (someone who exercises regularly, physically  active,  someone  who  keeps  in  shape). Individuals  then  are  classified  into  groups  based on  these  ratings.  Schematics  are  individuals  who have clear images of themselves in regard to exercise  (as  evidenced  by  either  extremely  high  or extremely  low  self-descriptiveness  ratings)  and who  consider  the  exercise  domain  as  extremely important  to  their  self-image  (as  evidenced  by extremely high importance ratings). Two types of schematics  can  be  identified:  exerciser  schematics  and  non-exerciser  schematics.  Individuals  in both groups view exercise as extremely important to  their  self-images.  However,  individuals  in  the former group clearly see themselves as exercisers; those in the latter group clearly see themselves as non-exercisers.  Only  a  very  small  percentage  of participants studied so far have been non-exerciser schematics,  making  it  difficult  to  gain  an  understanding  of  them.  The  non-exerciser  schematic group  may  actually  consist  of  two  subgroups  of people:  those  who  want  to  be  exercisers  (thus making it an important domain for them) but who do  not  yet  see  themselves  as  such  and  those  for whom not being an exerciser is an important part of their sense of self (i.e., proud couch potatoes).

In contrast, aschematics are individuals who do not have a clear self-image in regard to exercise (as evidenced by moderate self-descriptiveness ratings) and who do not consider exercise highly important to  their  self-image  (as  evidenced  by  low  to  moderate  importance  ratings).  Last,  individuals  who do not fit the criteria for classification as exerciser schematics,  non-exerciser  schematics,  or  aschematics are termed nonclassifiables. When there are theoretical  reasons  to  contrast  those  who  do  versus do not have an exerciser self-schema, the latter three groups (non-exerciser schematics, aschematics, and nonclassifiables) may be combined into a non-exerciser  self-schema  group,  which  can  then be contrasted with the exerciser schematic group.

Terminology differs across research labs; individuals termed non-exerciser schematics in one lab are sometimes  termed  nonschematics  in  another,  and the no exerciser self-schema group has sometimes been termed unschematics.

Although  alternative  self-rating  methods  for identifying  self-schema  status  have  been  used involving  only  self-descriptiveness  ratings,  only importance ratings, or the addition or multiplication of self-descriptiveness and importance ratings (or self-descriptiveness, importance, and certainty ratings),  these  methods  are  incompatible  with Markus’s  conceptualization  of  self-schema.  The first  two  methods  equate  self-schema  with  either past  experience  or  importance  to  the  individual and these challenges are discussed in the “conceptual  issues”  section.  The  multiplication  method, on the other hand, can result in the same numerical  score  being  assigned  to  people  from  different self-schema categories, as well as in non-exerciser schematics  and  nonclassifiables  receiving  either higher or lower scores than aschematics.

Correlates of Exercise and Sport-Specific Self-Schemas

Researchers have found numerous cognitive, affective,  motivational,  and  behavioral  correlates  of self-schema  status.  For  example,  consistent  with self-schema theory, baseball or softball schematics possess more baseball or softball knowledge (e.g., rules, strategy) than do aschematics; they also have more trait sport confidence, enjoy the sport more, participate  in  it  more  frequently,  and  expect  to participate in it more in the future.

There  are  many  theoretically  meaningful  correlates  of  exercise  self-schema  status.  Exerciser schematics  not  only  endorse  as  self-descriptive more words and phrases related to exercising and fewer related to not exercising, they take less time to  make  schema-consistent  judgments  (e.g.,  indicating  that  an  exercise  word  is  me),  predict  that they  will  be  more  likely  to  engage  in  future  proexercise  behavior  (e.g.,  to  use  the  stairs  instead of  taking  the  escalator  at  the  mall),  and  recall more  specific  instances  of  past  exerciser  behavior  and  fewer  specific  instances  of  non-exerciser behavior.  Interestingly,  exerciser  schematics  show attentional  bias  for  exercise-related  words;  that is,  their  attention  is  unconsciously  drawn  more to exercise-related words. Likewise, non-exerciser schematics  show  attentional  bias  for  sedentary words.  In  addition,  exerciser  schematics  perceive themselves  as  more  physically  fit,  have  greater exercise self-efficacy, have more positive attitudes toward  exercise  and  fitness,  are  more  interested in and committed to exercising, and have stronger exercise intentions. They also report having more autonomous  reasons  for  their  goal  of  exercising although  not  less  controlled  reasons;  these  reasons  include  both  identified  reasons  (i.e.,  exercising because they feel it is important) and intrinsic reasons  (e.g.,  exercising  because  they  enjoy  it). Exerciser  schematics  make  more  plans  to  help themselves  to  exercise  regularly  and  have  more tricks or strategies for getting themselves to exercise on days when they do not feel like exercising. They  also  view  the  causes  of  their  own  (but  not others’) exercise lapses as less stable than do individuals  who  lack  an  exerciser  self-schema,  even when  the  causes  they  mention  are  similar  (e.g., being lazy, stressed, or overloaded); this may help schematics recover better from an exercise lapse.

Given  these  findings,  it  is  not  surprising  that undergraduate exerciser schematics have reported exercising  more  frequently  over  various  time periods  than  aschematics  and  non-exerciser  schematics, as well as that they do more activities for exercise—and  their  exercise  caloric  expenditure over  the  past  week  has  been  found  to  be  higher. In  addition,  a  higher  percentage  report  having exercised at least three times per week in the past semester,  having  adopted  an  exercise  program during  the  semester,  and  having  begun  to  exercise  regularly  after  returning  to  college  from  an extended  holiday.  These  behavioral  data  should be viewed with caution because they are based on self-reports.  Fortunately,  an  unobtrusive  objective  measure  of  exercise  behavior  (attendance  at a  university  fitness  facility)  provides  converging evidence that exerciser schematics engage in more exercise  activity.  Interestingly,  this  behavioral  difference  seems  to  be  due  to  exerciser  schematics’ greater tendency to act on their exercise intentions, a  finding  obtained  in  studies  involving  both  self-reported and objective measures of exercise.

Conceptual Issues

Self-schema  status  has  never  been,  and  probably   cannot   be,   experimentally   manipulated. Consequently,  if  a  relationship  is  found  between self-schema  status  and  some  variable,  that  relationship  is  correlational  in  nature.  When  people who  have  different  self-schema  statuses  differ  on some  other  variable,  it  is  therefore  inappropriate to conclude that self-schema status actually caused the  difference.  For  example,  we  know  that  exerciser  schematics  act  on  their  exercise  intentions more, but we cannot conclude that this is due to their  having  a  self-schema.  That  may  be  the  case but  other  explanations  are  logically  possible  as well. For example, the differences might have been caused by some other variable on which exerciser schematics  and  the  group  with  which  they  are being  compared  (e.g.,  aschematics)  differ—such as self-efficacy or past behavior. So, although self-schema  theory  predicts  that  having  a  self-schema will affect (i.e., cause) information processing and behavioral  effects,  all  we  can  logically  conclude when we find differences along these lines is that the data are consistent with the theory.

A  second  issue  involves  how  the  concept  of self-schema,  a  stable  cognitive  structure,  can  be reconciled  with  the  growing  body  of  social  psychological research that supports the idea that the self is not stable but instead changes in response to the situational context. The answer lies in the current conceptualization of the self as a working self-concept. The working self-concept includes only a subset of the individual’s self-knowledge—namely, those elements of self-knowledge that are activated at the moment. Self-schemas are highly accessible (i.e., easy to activate in memory), so they are likely to  be  activated  across  situations.  Consequently, self-schemas can be seen as providing some stability within the working self-concept.

Finally,  the  fact  that  exercise  self-schema  status  is  typically  assessed  using  ratings  on  two dimensions  raises  the  issue  of  whether  the  exercise  self-schema  findings  might  really  be  due  just to  either  past  experience  (as  assessed  by  self-descriptiveness ratings) or the importance of exercise  to  the  individual  (as  assessed  by  importance ratings).  There  are  both  conceptual  and  empirical  arguments  against  these  alternative  explanations  of  self-schema  findings.  From  a  conceptual standpoint,  exercise  experience  and  considering exercise  important  to  the  self  are  each  necessary but  not  sufficient  for  the  development  of  a  self-schema.  For  example,  even  if  someone  has  a  lot of  experience  with  exercise,  he  or  she  will  not necessarily  develop  an  exercise  self-schema;  exercise  must  also  be  considered  important  to  his  or her  self-image.  From  an  empirical  standpoint,  if self-schema  simply  reflects  past  experience,  then we would not expect to obtain the same types of information  processing  effects  for  exerciser  and non-exerciser  schematics  because  they  presumably  differ  in  exercise  experience.  However,  we do obtain them—for example, both exerciser and non-exerciser schematics show attentional bias for schema-consistent  words.  Likewise,  if  it  were  the case  that  self-schema  simply  reflects  how  important exercise is to the individual’s self-image, then exerciser schematics and non-exerciser schematics should not differ in their exercise behavior because they both report that exercise is highly important to their self-image—but they do.


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