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In this lesson, you will learn to define the term schema and will be introduced to a variety of ways in which schemas are used in everyday life.

Following this lesson, you will have an opportunity to test your knowledge with a short quiz.

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Schemas

A schema is a mental concept that informs a person about what to expect from a variety of experiences and situations. Schemas are developed based on information provided by life experiences and are then stored in memory.

Our brains create and use schemas as a short cut to make future encounters with similar situations easier to navigate. We will look at a couple of examples that will help illustrate the definition.

Types of Schemas

Schemas can be classified into different types. Let’s take a look at four common types of schemas.Role schemas help people understand the social context with which he or she is engaged and adjust accordingly to the demands of the situation. For instance, if Joe is employed as a physician, he displays his professional role in the hospital but likely behaves differently while with his family on vacation. As observers, our expectations about how he should act differ depending on the social situation.

Not only do we develop expectations about other people based on the social role that they occupy, we develop expectations about their behavior based on their personality traits. So, if Sally tends to be shy and quiet by nature, then that is how the people who know her expect Sally to behave at a party full of strangers. If she suddenly acts very outgoing at a party, that’d be a big surprise to her friends!We also have schemas about self. Similar to the way we expect others to act in certain situations, we have expectations about how we should act in different situations. If I believe I am outgoing and people like talking to me at parties, then I will feel obligated to modify my behavior to fit this self schema.Schemas for specific events are sometimes referred to as scripts.

Much like schemas for personality traits, event schemas are based on expectations of how to behave in a variety of situations. They’re based on our associations with how events ‘should’ play out based on our previous experiences with events we perceive as similar. Schemas for events are powerful.

Examples of Schemas

Most people who have ever had a job have had more than one job. Think back to when you started your second job. If you had a successful first job experience, then without even knowing it, your brain developed a schema based on what is involved in having a job.

You probably knew that it was a good idea to go see your manager to get your assignments for the day, you probably had a sense that there would be breaks at some point throughout the day, and you probably expected to be paid at some point for your work. Those expectations about what to expect are a schema. Even though you had never worked a day for the new company you still had a general idea of how things should work.Road trips are fun, right? Going on a road trip will inevitably result in a few stops along the way to fill up the gas tank. If you’re on your way to Colorado and need to stop for gas in Iowa, how do you know how to operate the gas pump at a gas station that you have never visited? Once again, you have a schema for pumping gas, and it can be of great assistance at a gas station you have never visited. Even though there may be some differences between how to operate the gas pump in Iowa, your brain has generated a schema that includes how to approach the pump as you pull in, where to park, how to start and stop the flow of gas, and how to pay.

This is all based on your past experiences at gas stations! Subtle differences from your local neighborhood gas station will likely exist, but the schema that you have generated for pumping gas will allow you to quickly pump gas and get on your way much faster than if you had to learn the whole process as if it were the first time.

Lesson Summary

Schemas are mental representations of scenarios that can be helpful in guiding people through a variety of situations. Schemas are created based on experiences and are stored in memory for future use. Schemas allow us to quickly navigate different situations that resemble familiar ones.

A schema for restaurants allows a person to know how to dine in a restaurant that he or she has never encountered before. Schemas can be classified into distinct categories. Schemas exist for roles, person, self, and events. While schemas can be helpful, they also influence our behavior. Awareness of the power of schemas can be beneficial in helping to avoid the dangers of assuming all situations are the same.

Learning Outcomes

View the lesson on schemas in psychology as you prepare to subsequently:

  • Recite the definition of schemas and identify their utility
  • Provide details about the categories of schemas
  • Discuss examples of schemas

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