The Basic Idea

If I asked you to imagine a brunch, what would you see? Perhaps you would picture a big plate of scrambled eggs, fried bacon, sausage, with a side of toast and a big glass of orange juice to wash it all down.

What if I asked how you would go about introducing yourself to a new person?  You would probably respond with: ‘Hi, my name is (insert your name here), it’s nice to meet you’? Maybe you would continue by asking what their name was, and where they’re from.

Why do so many of us have similar concepts of brunch and similar scripts of introductions if we all lived through unique experiences? These generalizations occur because our world is too complex for our minds to process all the available information in our environment. Instead, our brains use shortcuts and frameworks, called schemas, to make it easier to organize knowledge and understand new information. Schemas allow us to simplify and allocate our limited mental capacities efficiently.1

Intelligence is not only the ability to reason; it is also the ability to find relevant material in memory and to deploy attention when needed.

– Daniel Kahneman

Theory, meet practice

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Key Terms

Schema: the mental framework stored in memory containing basic knowledge about the concepts we know, used to guide perception, interpretation, problem solving, imagination and day-to-day interactions.2

Assimilation: when new information is modified to fit into pre-existing schemas.3

Accommodation: the process by which new information changes an old schema.3

Cognition: the mental processes associated with memory, problem-solving, decision-making, comprehension, thinking, imagination, perception, and planning.4

Stereotyping: a generalization about the personal attributes or characteristics of a specific group of people.5


The first recorded mention of a schema was seen in German Philosopher Immanuel Kant’s The Critique of Pure Reason, published in 1781.6  No further development was seen until 1923, when Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget picked up the idea from where Kant left off. Piaget was credited with the early development of the concept of schemas, which he used to explain a stage theory of cognitive development, particularly in children. According to Piaget, as a child begins to learn about the world around them, they create representations in their mind which progressively  develop as they continue to learn new things. When you learn how to use a fork to eat, you have developed a schema for eating with a fork. This schema can then be applied to other things, such as eating with a spoon.3

According to Piaget, the processes by which children adjust or change schemas are called assimilation and accommodation. For example, imagine a child’s concept of animals only includes dogs, and they come across a horse for the first time. The child may recognize it to have the same qualities as a dog: it’s furry, has a tail, and stands on four legs. Assimilation would say that the child believes the horse is a new type of dog. Accommodation, however, would say that the child believes that the horse is not a dog and thus needs to include a new schema within their concept of animals.

The concept of schemas was later popularized in 1932 by British psychologist Sir Frederic Charles Bartlett. He conducted experimental research on how schemas influence memory. Bartlett found that memory storage in our brains is not localized, but instead involves cognitive constructs, influenced by previous experiences, cultural and social norms, as well as personal attitudes. Information that fits into existing schemas will be interpreted based on the framework, while information that does not fit into an existing schema will be forgotten. However, modern schema theory states that once we encounter conflicting information enough times, our schema will become modified. He also found that alongside memory storage, our subjective understanding of the world is formed by the same network of cognitive structures.7, 8, 9

According to the American Psychological Association, there are five types of schemas that everyone tends to possess:

  1. Object Schemas: help us understand inanimate objects, primarily in differentiating different objects and knowing how they each work.
  2. Person Schemas: created to understand individuals. For example, one’s schema about their parents might include the way they look, the way they act, their likes and dislikes, and personality traits.
  3. Social Schemas: general knowledge about how people tend to behave in social situations. If someone is going to a restaurant for dinner, their restaurant schema will provide them with a general understanding of what social situation to expect.
  4. Self-Schemas: help us understand ourselves. This can include our idea of who we are now, our past self, and who we could end up being in the future.
  5. Event Schemas: also called scripts, help us know what to expect during a given event, particularly the sequence of behaviors and actions.  When someone goes to the grocery store, they expect to grab a cart, walk through the aisles picking what they would like to buy, go to the checkout aisle, pay for their groceries, and leave.

Though there are is an endless number of different types of schemas, these are just the basic ones we use the most throughout our day-to-day lives.9, 10


Jean Piaget

Jean Piaget was a Swiss psychologist and self-identified genetic epistemologist, primarily recognized for this theory of cognitive development which explains how children develop intellectually. Piaget received his PhD in zoology from the University of Neuchâtel in 1918. He later fostered an interest in psychoanalysis, which made him transition towards psychology work in the 1920s. While previous research in cognitive development suggested that children were simply small adults, Piaget’s research was the main catalyst for this change in perspective. His theories are widely accepted and studied today, by students and academics alike.11

Frederic Bartlett

Sir Frederic Charles Bartlett was a British psychologist, recognized for his memory research. In 1924, he became an editor of the British Journal of Psychology, a position he maintained for 24 years. In 1931, Bartlett was elected to be the first full-time professor of experimental psychology at the University of Cambridge. During his time there, Cambridge became the center of experimental psychology, expanding exponentially in size. Bartlett Was one of the forerunners of cognitive psychology, publishing much research on cognition and memory throughout the 1920s and 1930s.8


Think back to when you were little, and just learned how to speak. Maybe it was English or a different mother tongue. Either way, the toddler version of you was speaking away with near perfect grammar, but without a drop of education on sentence structure, how to use adjectives or conjugate verbs.

This is an example of how useful schemas are to people. We are able to conduct ourselves accordingly even when we are unaware of all the specific details surrounding what we are saying, doing, and thinking. Schemas affect everything we perceive and help us interact with the world around us efficiently. They help us think and learn new information quickly, with minimal cognitive effort, by helping us categorize and organize new information from existing schemas.9

Some schemas change over time.  Maybe when you were younger your ‘teacher’ schema included the idea that you could ask them to zip up your coat before you left school for the day.  As an adult you no longer hold that idea in your teacher schema and recognize it is your own responsibility to zip up your coat.3

While schemas can be beneficial for improving our cognitive efficiency, there are possible negative consequences which can prove to be very dangerous. Sometimes existing schemas can hinder our ability to learn new information. One reason for this is that schemas lead us to pay attention to information that fits into our current schemas. So anything that appears to contradict our current knowledge tends to be rejected or ignored. This is also recognized in psychology as confirmation bias.

When it comes to our ‘Person’ schemas, this can lead to prejudice and stereotyping. Imagine a farmer from a rural town, who doesn’t get the opportunity to meet people of different ethnicities. Imagine this farmer also relies on TV and social media to hear about what is happening around the world. Since violence is more reported than positive acts, it is possible that the farmer will only experience other ethnic groups in the context of committing crimes. The farmer can then form a schema that all people of this ethnic group are dangerous crime-committers. This is also known as an illusory correlation bias, which describes a scenario where one believes there is an association between two variables that aren’t actually associated. When this farmer eventually comes across an individual of this ethnic group, they may choose to ignore all their good qualities and search for information that confirms what they saw on the news. This stereotyping can lead the farmer to fear this individual and perhaps act in a way that can be harmful to both parties involved.

Although this is only a hypothetical situation, we often hear from the news how prejudice and stereotyping can lead to racism and blatant hate crimes. It is important to acknowledge the fact that this happens so that we can avoid placing people in boxes with attributes that they haven’t had the chance to earn or dispel.


Schema theory tends to be universally agreed upon and held in high regard by psychologists today. Though there are many negative consequences to the use of schemas, the concept itself tends to face little criticism. However, a paper published by the Reading Research Quarterly in 1991 evaluated schema theory and presented dual-coding theory as a theoretical alternative. Dual-coding theory proposes that our minds represent and remember everything in our environment using two systems: verbal and nonverbal/visual.12 The authors found that schemas lacked a consistent definition and had mixed empirical support. They then discussed the results from a study on the effects of imagery on reading, and explained that dual coding theory offered a better explanation to the results than schema theory.13

Case Study

Schemas versus Guilt Assessment

A study published in 2010 investigated how criminal schemas would affect the guilt assessments from simulated jurors. 140 participants were placed either in the ‘no evidence’ or ‘evidence’ condition. In both conditions jurors were provided knowledge that the defendant had been charged with either one, two, three, or four offenses. Jurors in the evidence condition were given evidence from either one or two charges. They found that guilt evaluations, defendant character ratings, and measures of memory were influenced more by the number of charges judged than by the number of charges filed. In other words, the actual number of previous charges on the defendant were less influential than the jurors’ character and guilt evaluations on the number of charges judged during the study.14 What this case study implies is that in the real world, the charges that jurors are assigning are being influenced by what they think of the defendant rather than the actual evidence at hand. This can have detrimental effects to the lives of the defendants if jurors are not aware that their evaluations may be swayed by their criminal schemas.

Related TDL Content

Biases: Illusory Correlation

Why do we sometimes think that there is an association between two events, actions, or ideas when they aren’t actually associated? The illusory correlation bias describes this phenomenon and can also explain why stereotypes exist. Read this article to understand why we may attribute certain prejudices to different ethnic groups, and why this can be dangerous in our society.

Biases: Fundamental Attribution Error

Just as the name implies, this bias is fundamental to understand when learning about psychology. Fundamental attribution error also plays a role in why schemas occur, as we sometimes attribute the outcome of an event to a person rather than the environment of occurrence. Why do we underestimate the influence of the situation on people’s behavior? Read about this bias to find out more.

Biases: Choice Overload Bias

If your brain tried to absorb all the information in your environment, it would get overwhelmed. Similarly, having too many options to choose from can also make us overwhelmed, and result in poor decision-making This article explains why having fewer choices will sometimes lead to better decisions.

Biases: Confirmation bias

We discussed how schemas can sometimes result in prejudice and stereotyping, confirmation bias, and explains why we tend to have an underlying tendency to notice and focus on evidence that fits our existing beliefs. Read this reference guide to learn more about confirmation bias and how it is exacerbated online.


  1. Vinney, C. (2019, July 22). What is a schema in psychology? Definition and examples. ThoughtCo.
  2. American Psychological Association. (n.d.). schema. Apa dictionary of psychology.
  3. YouTube. (2020). 🧠 What is a schema? 🧠 Cognitive Developmental PsychologyYouTube.
  4. Cherry, K. (2020, June 3). What is Cognition? Verywell Mind.
  5. Allport, G. W., Clark, K., & Pettigrew, T. (1954). The nature of prejudice.
  6. “Schemas and Memory.” Psychologist World.
  7. Cherry, K. (2019, September 23). The Role of a Schema in Psychology. Verywell Mind.
  8. Frederic Bartlett. (2017, May 9). New World Encyclopedia
  9. Vinney, C. (2019, July 22). What is a schema in psychology? Definition and examples. ThoughtCo.
  10. Baldwin MW. Psychological bulletin. American Psychological Association. 1992. doi:10.1037/0033-2909.112.3.461
  11. Cherry, K. (2020, April 15). Jean Piaget Biography (1896-1980). Verywell Mind.
  12. Thomas, N. J. T. (2014, September 12). Dual Coding and Common Coding Theories of Memory. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
  13. Sadoski, M., Paivio, A., & Goetz, E. (1991). Commentary: A Critique of Schema Theory in Reading and a Dual Coding Alternative. Reading Research Quarterly, 26(4), 463-484. doi:10.2307/747898
  14. Bordens, K. S., & Horowitz, I. A. (1986). Prejudicial joinder of multiple offenses: Relative effects of cognitive processing and criminal schema. Basic and applied social psychology7(4), 243-258.

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