Let me tell you a simple story: John went to a restaurant. He ordered lobster. He paid the check and left.

Now let me ask you some questions about your understanding of this story: What did John eat? Did he sit down? Whom did he give money to? Why?

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ScriptsThese questions are easy to answer. Unfortunately, your answers to them have no basis in actual fact. John may have put the lobster in his pocket. He might have been standing on one foot while eating (if he was eating). Who really knows whom he paid?

You feel we know the answer to these questions because you are relying on knowledge you have about common situations that you have encountered in your own life. What kind of knowledge is this? Where does it reside? How is it that your understanding depends on guessing?

People have scripts. A script can be best understood as a package of knowledge that a person has about particular kinds of situations that he or she has encountered frequently. Some scripts are culturally common, everyone you know shares them, and some scripts are idiosyncratic, which means that only you know about them. When you refer to something that takes place in a restaurant you can leave out most of the details because you know that your listener can fill them in. You know what your listener knows. But, if you were telling a story about a situation that only you were familiar with, you would have to explain what was happening in great detail. Knowing that your listener has the baseball script, you can describe a game to him or her quite quickly. But, if you were speaking to someone who had never seen a baseball game you would either have to make reference to a script the listener already had (cricket perhaps) or else you would be in for a long explanation.

Scripts help people understand what others are telling them and also help people comprehend what they are seeing and experiencing. When a person wants to order in a restaurant and starts to talk to the waiter and he hands the person a piece of paper and a pencil, the person is surprised. He or she may not know what to do. But, the person may have had experience with private clubs that want orders written down. If not, the person will ask. When expectations are violated, when a script fails and things don’t happen the way a person expected, he or she must adjust.

Adjustments in daily life to script violations are the basis of learning. Next time the person will know to expect the waiter to hand him or her a paper and pencil. Or the person might generalize and decide that next time doesn’t only mean in this restaurant but in any restaurant of this type. Making generalizations about type is a major aspect of learning. Every time a script is violated in some way, every time a person’s expectations fail, he or she must rewrite the script, so as not to be fooled next time.

Scripts are really just packages of expectations about what people will do in given situations, so one is constantly surprised since other people don’t always do what one expects. This means in effect, that although scripts serve the obvious role of telling people what will happen next, they also have a less obvious role as organizers of the memories of experiences people have had.

Remember that time in the airplane when the flight attendant threw the food packages at the passengers? You would remember such an experience, and might tell people a story about it: ‘You know what happened on my flight?” Stories are descriptions of script violations of an interesting sort. But, suppose that this happened twice, or five times; suppose it happened every time you flew a particular airline. Then, you would match one script violation with another, to realize that it wasn’t a script violation at all, just a different script you hadn’t known about. Learning depends on being able to remember when and how a script failed, marking that failure with a memory or story about the failure event, and then being able to recognize a similar incident and make a new script.

Scripts fail all the time. This is why people have trouble understanding each other. Their scripts are not identical. What one person assumes about a situation—the script he or she has built because of the experiences he or she has had—may not match another’s because that person has had different experiences. Children get upset when their scripts fail. They cry because what they assumed would happen didn’t happen. Their world model is naive and faulty. But they recover day by day, growing scripts that are just like the ones that adults have. They do this by expecting, failing, explaining their failure (maybe they ask someone for help), and making a new expectation, which will probably fail too someday. This cycle of understanding is a means by which people can learn every day from every experience.

Some people stop learning. They expect all scripts to be followed the way they always were. They get angry when a fork is on the wrong side of a plate because that’s the way it has always been and has to be. All people have such rigidity in their scripts. They have scripts that others wouldn’t consider violating because they want to live in an orderly world. People confuse other people when they fail to follow culturally agreed upon scripts. People depend on other people to follow the rules. And, their understanding of the behavior of others depends on everyone agreeing to behave in restaurants the way people behave in restaurants. It is so much easier to communicate that way.

Scripts dominate people’s thinking lives. They organize people’s memories, they drive people’s comprehension, and they cause learning to happen when they fail.


  1. Schank, R. C. (with Abelson, R.). (1977). Scripts, plans, goals and understanding: An inquiry into human knowledge structures. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
  2. Schank, R. C. (1982). Dynamic memory: A theory of learning in computers and people. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
  3. Schank, R. C. (1986). Explanation patterns: Understanding mechanically and creatively. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
  4. Schank, R. C. (1995). Tell me a story: Narrative and intelligence. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press.