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Effect of Schemas on Understanding the Social World

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Psychology
Wordcount: 1642 words Published: 16th Apr 2018

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  • Zoe Crackett


This[p1] essay looks to assess the degree to which our perception of the social world is driven by how our knowledge is brought together and presented to ourselves. Bartlett (1932) used the concept of schema, which has been defined for this essay, to explain how people can call on subconscious categorisations. Buchanan et al (2009) claim that schematic processing is both efficient and an effective method of understanding but pre-existing schema can mean that the processing is constrained. Cognitive psychologists are concerned with how people perceive others, situations and events within their own social world. To explore the claim the essay uses studies where schema and expectations have been tested such as Bartlett (1932) ‘War of the Ghosts’ story as well as how what we expect can be wrong.

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Fritz Heider was one of the first psychologists to study social cognition in terms of (how) understanding how people make sense of the social world relates to (concatenation – not sure what this word is) of events. Heider and Simmel (1944) used a series of cartoons to demonstrate how cause and effect works. In the study participants were asked to describe what they saw in the cartoons. In the first group participants were asked just to describe what they saw whilst the other two groups were asked to describe what they saw as if the objects were people. The third group saw the cartoons played backwards. Heider and Simmel found that all but one of the participants in the first group described the cartoons using human terms. In this way Heider claims that people act as “naïve psychologists” by trying to make sense of events or people by looking for predictability using cause and effect (Heider and Simmel, cited in Buchanan et al, 2009, p60-61).

The term schema defines a type of cognitive structure that may present itself as a typical object or event that a person has knowledge of; this allows the person to process the object or event and act or react accordingly. A person uses schema when they perceive situations and other people to aid them in responding to them. Bartlett (1932) used the term schema when describing how English people retold a Native American folk tale but each time the tale was retold it would change to be more ‘English’. Detail from the original tale would be omitted where it may be thought of as not relevant or altered to something more familiar that the teller was able to relate to (Bartlett, cited in Brace and Roth, 2009, pp131-132[p2]).

Social psychologists have identified person,role and event schema. These are mental structures that a person uses that hold knowledge on different types of people, expected behaviour and social situations respectively. The knowledge allows for generalisation of the object or event. For example in Buchanan et al (2009) reference is made to a TV commercial taken with four different camera angles.

In the first shot a white youth with a shaven head wearing combat trousers and Doc Marten boots is seen running. From the first shot the assumption of ‘skinhead’ can be used as the description is that which would be attributed to a skinhead. This in turn would lead to thoughts relating to criminal behaviour such as aggression and violence. The second shot shows the youth running towards a man who is smartly dressed. Through the final two shots the viewer is given two more camera angles and sees further information. By the time the viewer sees the fourth shot they may have already formed the opinion that the youth is going to assault the smartly dressed man. However the fourth shot shows the full picture to the viewer; the youth was not running towards the man to assault him but is intent on pushing him out of the way of a pallet of bricks that is about to fall and injure him (Buchanan et al, 2009 p63–64).

Buchanan et al (2009) have described schema as generalised representations. In the case of the ‘skinhead’ youth in the above example the generalisation has also invoked stereotypical perceptions that people project on to others. Buchanan et al claim these generalisations leave room for some form of variation however it is not explained how stereotypes are learned. Sometimes how something is perceived can be inaccurate. Tajfel stated that it is possible to over generalise and as a result have a tendency to stereotype (Buchanan et al p66[p3]).

An integral feature of schema is that the knowledge they contain is defined as shared knowledge in other words it is not just particular to a person or event. Schema needs knowledge to be shared in order that it is effective. Schema is self-confirming. By providing expectations based on what a person thinks they know or understand to be true, what is actually presented can be distorted, as in the Bartlett experiment. By self-confirming it supports the claim that schema constrain peoples understanding of the social world (Buchanan et al, 2009, pp65-68).

In an experiment by Darley and Gross (1983) college students were shown a video tape of a character called Hannah and asked to critique her academic ability. The students were introduced to her as being either from a high or low socio-economic status. Some students were also shown a video of ‘Hannah’ answering a set of questions in an oral exam. Whilst there was no apparent pattern as to whether ‘Hannah’ was answering more questions correctly or incorrectly those that saw Hannah as higher socio-economic status as well as the exam judged her to have higher academic ability. Darley and Gross surmised that although the information can be the same information is processed according to expectations (Darley and Gross, cited in Buchanan et al, 2009).

The Darley and Gross study demonstrates how schema can simplify lots of information, this also allows relevant information to be extracted more quickly. A person simply needs to access processing knowledge in order for that person to understand what is happening however as demonstrated by the tv commercial showing the youth if only one part is shown the subsequent response can be inaccurate and the person may look for sign posts from within their own expectations rather than taking cues from their present environment. As such that person makes a fundamental attribution error (FAE) (Buchanan et al p75).

Kahneman and Tversky (1973) explored how FAEs can be made easily. They used short vignettes to describe a seemingly random person. The participants were given deliberately vague descriptions of a person and they were asked to judge the likelihood that the person described was a lawyer. Participants were told that the person described had come from a room of people where either seventy or thirty per cent were lawyers. In both conditions the participants gave the probability the person described was a lawyer was fifty per cent. The participants ignored relevant information that they had been given and focused on the descriptions they read (Kahneman and Tversky cited in Buchanan et al, 2009)

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In conclusion schema assists a person to cut out a lot of irrelevant information and process other detail quickly, however as a result other important information can be accidentally discarded. For schema to work they require knowledge to be shared with others so that everyone is able to respond. People make assumptions based on what they think they know and apply it to the situations they see. As demonstrated by the TV commercial unless a person sees the all the information at the same time their judgements can be wrong but also it demonstrates, through the extra pieces of information on each shot, that they can be changed. Generally schema can work well as left to their own devices it is possible for a person to make errors in judgement. The claim made by Buchanan et al (2009) is that a person is compelled to make a judgement in the social world based on pre-existing patterns of thought is to some extent correct, however the person also has the ability to change.

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Brace, N. and Roth, I. (2009) ‘Memory: structures, processes and skills’ in Miell, D., Phoenix, A. and Thomas, K. (eds) Book 1 Introduction and Chapters 6 – 9 DSE212 Mapping Psychology. Milton Keynes, Open University pp 111 – 170

Buchanan, K., Anand, P., Joffe, H. and Thomas, K. (2009) ‘Perceiving and understanding the social world’ in Miell, D., Phoenix, A. and Thomas, K. (eds) Book 1 Introduction and Chapters 6 – 9 DSE212 Mapping Psychology. Milton Keynes, Open University pp 57 – 109


[p1]An effective introduction which states the issue and states how you mean to tackle the essay

[p2]Good use of evidence to support your point here.

[p3]Good use of this example to illustrate how schematic processing can produce generalisations and stereotyping.


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