When my daughter was young, she didn’t know “thingamabobs” was what people would say when they couldn’t think of the proper word for a collection of objects. Instead of calling it “that pile of stuff,” people would say “Clean up those thingamabobs.”
The term appears in Disney’s move The Little Mermaid. Arial proudly states that if you want thingamabobs, she has 20. But who cares, no big deal, she wants more.
When my daughter sang the song, she changed the lyrics to fit her level of knowledge. She said that if you want things in a box, she has twenty. Things in a box made sense to her. Thingamabobs meant nothing.
Schemas are part of this adaptive quality we have of fitting the world into our personal viewpoint. From our experience, we create cognitive structures (for want of a better term). We put ideas into categories and use them to evaluate incoming information.
What Are Schemas?
Schemas are mental models that represent our best understanding of the world. Our personal experiences are different, so our schemas are different. If you know terms like thingamabobs and thingamajigs, your schema will include them. As your knowledge base grows, your schemas expand.
We start with a simple schema for animals. When we are little, all animals are referred to as dog or cat or duck. As we gain more experience, we add more information. We learn some cats are friendly and some are touchy. You add this information to your knowledge base. This is called assimilation. You add more information to a single category. It’s like putting more things in your house.
Eventually, your house is full and you need to buy an additional one (house sizes are limited in this metaphor). While that would be an expensive solution in real life, for cognitive structures we add new categories. This is called accommodation. After you’ve acquired a lot of information, you begin to differentiate between them. You accommodate by adding new categories. We add categories for live cats, fictional cats, cartoon cats, book cats, neighbor cats and so on.
We have a schema for a department store. Even if you make most of your purchases online and don’t go to the mall, you have a mental image of what a department store would include. For me, I think of how perfume counters seem to be located at the mall entrance, and how I have to hold my breath to get past them. I expect other customers to be present, sales representatives walking around, and music (live or piped) to be playing. I expect it to be air conditioned, large and to have tall ceilings. I expect both escalators and elevators. Your schema may differ.
How Do Schemas Work?
We use schema to organize our knowledge and to interpret new information. I visited a mall in France and found it to easily fit my schema for shopping malls. But my schema for grocery store and bakery had to be adjusted.
It is hard to change schemas that are based on only a few examples. My idea of a town square is the Grand Place in Brussels. It is the only example I have of large open space between old buildings. I’ve been to Time Square in New York but it doesn’t feel like a square to me. From pictures I’ve seen, Tiananmen Square in Beijing is too big. The Piazza del Campo in Siena, Tuscany, Italy is heart shaped. And St. Pete’s Square has round sides. If it has round sides, how can it really be a square?
I use the Grand Place to judge all other squares. That’s the advantage of schemas. We can use them to both organize our knowledge and to interpret new information. Once we have a good category, we use it and try not to change it.
Schemas develop over time. They are a product of our experience, interests and explorations. They build up. As we travel around our neighborhood, our town, our county and state, we gather more information to incorporate in our schemas. Since we travel different routes and go to different places, our schemas are unique to us.
Although unique to the individual, some schemas are common in a culture. We have categories for left-wing vs right-wing, for rich or poor, and for popular-unpopular. There are schemas for police officer, judge, professor, student and movie star. Each comes with certain expectations. Exceptions to those expectations make us add more detail to the schema (assimilation) or add a new category (accommodation).
When Are Schemas Used?
Schemas are activated by stimulus features. When people see a young person with white hair, pale skin and poor vision, their “albino” schema is activated. If they haven’t met an albino before, they may have to add a new category for albino-real. As an albino, it simply adds more information to my albino-like-me schema.
The fewer the samples, the stronger the schema. If you meet someone with red hair who is rude to you, your whole schema for red-haired people is based on one sample. If the next redhead you meet is also rude, the rude-redhead schema is even stronger. It takes many more samples of non-rude redheads to establish a new category. This is why it is difficult to change prejudices and stereotypes.
Once a feature is detected a schema is automatically triggered. If you hear the word “clown,” you automatically generate a reaction. It might be vague or specific but there is nothing you need to do for it to surface. Any sensory input can trigger a schema: vision, sound, touch and smell. All the senses can be involved, individually or collectively.
Some schemas are context sensitive and others are chronically accessible. The chronically and readily available schemas include our view of ourselves, our basic prejudices and our world view. Context sensitive schema include priming (hints given ahead of time), people and locations. Priming is hearing a word (water) and then hearing bank. You are more likely to remember river bank than you are bank teller.
People and location factors often impact us when we go home or are around our relatives. We are strong, independent people, except when we get around our siblings or elderly aunts. People and places can trigger old schemas.
Types of Schema
There are three types of schema: person, self and script. A person schema consists of your general knowledge and beliefs about other people traits and characteristics. Are people generally helpful, friendly and honest? Are people selfish, mean and dishonest? People schema are generalizations about people. We use them to organize our thinking and plan our behaviors (smile or hide).
Self-schemas are person schemas about you. They consist of your general knowledge about who you are. They are a collection of beliefs you have about your own personality, abilities and goals.
Scripts are event schemas. They contain your knowledge of interpersonal behaviors and what to do where. You have schemas for restaurants. You know not to wait for a hostess at a burger joint, and not to seat yourself at a fancy bistro. You know when to pay (before or after you get the food), what the server will say (“Would you like to hear our specials?”), whether they will bring you water, if you have to ask for fries, and whether it is proper to talk to people at the table next to you.
Scripts are like movie scripts: they allow you to anticipate events and fill in missing details. Take our typical conversational greeting script. First, someone says hello to you. Then you say hello back. Then they say “How are you?” And you will say…
They aren’t actually asking how you are. They don’t want to know about your aches, pains, upset stomach and rashes. They say it because it is part of the script.
Next time someone asks “How are you?” say “Good to see you.” You will discover how closely people follow scripts. The conversation will probably falter because you didn’t follow the script.
Is It Schema or Schemata?
You can use schemata for an individual schema, and schema for the plural. Or you can use schema for singular and schemas for plural. I use whichever the spellchecker won’t complain about. I have a pretty flexible schema for schemas.