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:
- Object Schemas: help us understand inanimate objects, primarily in differentiating different objects and knowing how they each work.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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