Social Schemas

Martha Augoustinos and Iain Walker, in Social Cognition: An Integrated Introduction, 1995
Read January 2011

This chapter from Social Cognition gives a brief introduction to schemas: what they are, how people use them, and some of the research in psychology related to them. Schemas are mental structures, which we use to categorize things we experience in the world: people, things, and events. Schemas “give us some sense of prediction and control of the social world” (33) and “…are a kind of mental short-hand that people use to simplify reality” (33). The authors write that “the most central function of schemas is to lend organization to experience” (42).

In order to apply a schema to an object, we must first categorize the object. This has to do with “how we identify stimuli and group them as members of one category, similar to others in that category and different from members of other categories” (34). The authors introduce the theories of Eleanor Rosch, who came up with the concept of “prototypes,” or members of a category that people consider as “more representative of a category than other members” (34). A prototypical bird, for example, is a robin. When mentally assigning new objects to a category, we judge how similar they are to our prototype.

The portions of this chapter most relevant to my thesis were those which discussed how people process information and apply schemas to information. The authors write that information processing relies on schemas to make sense of new situations; thus, “schemas facilitate the recall of information” (44). This can sometimes lead to biased judgments if we categorize new information without thoughtfully considering it. Sometimes, for example, rather than obtaining a complete understanding of the new information, we instead use past experiences to “fill in” the missing values. Psychologists have also found that information inconsistent with our schemas takes longer to process. This is important for designers to keep in mind when designing communication pieces containing unfamiliar information.

The authors also introduce the question of how we process information that is inconsistent with our schemas. For example, since we use schemas to organize information, we should theoretically ignore or have trouble remembering new information that doesn’t fit with our established schemas. But some researchers believe that we do pay attention to and thoroughly process new information, because its novelty signals that it could be highly important (45). Both of these theories could be explained by the research done by Janis and Mann in “Coping with Decisional Conflict,” which states that whether people pay attention to information inconsistent with their views depends on their stress levels.

In summary, I viewed this chapter as supplementary to my other readings. It provides a basis of underlying theoretical knowledge, which is a nice complement to readings with ideas for how to put such knowledge into practice.

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