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.
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.
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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