People use schemata to organize current knowledge and provide a framework for future understanding. Examples of schemata include Rubric (academic), stereotypes, social roles, scripts, worldviews, and archetypes. In Piaget's theory of development, children adopt a series of schemata to understand the world.
Plato elaborates the Greek doctrine of ideal types – such as the perfect circle that exists in the mind but which no one has ever seen. Immanuel Kant further developed the notion and introduced the word "schema." For example, he describes the "dog" schema a mental pattern which "can delineate the figure of a four-footed animal in a general manner, without limitation to any single determinate figure as experience, or any possible image that I can represent in concreto" (Kant 1781). Since that time, many other terms have been used as well, including "frame," "scene," "scenario," "script," and even "model" and "theory".
Key theoretical development of schema theory was made in several fields, including linguistics, anthropology, psychology, and artificial intelligence. The heyday of schema theory was probably in the 1970s (although of course in OB it has barely arrived). One of the main engines was artificial intelligence, which was engaged in getting computers to read natural text. It was quickly discovered that most of what is communicated in a newspaper article cannot be understood without reference to a great deal of information that is not included in the article itself.
Major contributions to schema theory were made by American psychologist George Kelly. His personal construct psychology carefully delineated the ways in which people form and modify schemata that determine their experience of reality.
However, schemata can influence and hamper the uptake of new information (proactive interference), such as when existing stereotypes, giving rise to limited or biased discourses and expectations (prejudices), may lead an individual to 'see' or 'remember' something that has not happened because it is more believable in terms of his/her schema. For example, if a well-dressed businessman draws a knife on a vagrant, the schemata of onlookers may (and often do) lead them to 'remember' the vagrant pulling the knife. Such distortion of memory has been demonstrated. (See Background research below.)
Schemata are interrelated and multiple conflicting schemata can be applied to the same information. Schemata are generally thought to have a level of activation, which can spread among related schemata. Which schema is selected can depend on factors such as current activation, accessibility, and priming.
Accessibility is how easily a schema comes to mind, and is determined by personal experience and expertise. This can be used as a cognitive shortcut; it allows the most common explanation to be chosen for new information.
With priming, a brief imperceptible stimulus temporarily provides enough activation to a schema so that it is used for subsequent ambiguous information. Although this may suggest the possibility of subliminal messages, the effect of priming is so fleeting that it is difficult to detect outside laboratory conditions. Furthermore, the mere exposure effect —which requires consciousness of the stimuli— is far more effective than priming.
The original concept of schemata is linked with that of reconstructive memory as proposed and demonstrated in a series of experiments by Bartlett (1932). By presenting participants with information that was unfamiliar to their cultural backgrounds and expectations and then monitoring how they recalled these different items of information (stories, etc.), Bartlett was able to establish that individuals' existing schemata and stereotypes influence not only how they interpret 'schema-foreign' new information but also how they recall the information over time. One of his most famous investigations involved asking participants to read a Native American folk tale, "The War of the Ghosts," and recall it several times up to a year later. All the participants transformed the details of the story in such a way that it reflected their cultural norms and expectations, i.e. in line with their schemata. The factors that influenced their recall were:
Bartlett's work was crucially important in demonstrating that long-term memories are neither fixed nor immutable but are constantly being adjusted as our schemata evolve with experience. In a sense it supports the existentialist view that we construct our past and present in a constant process of narrative/discursive adjustment, and that much of what we 'remember' is actually confabulated (adjusted and rationalised) narrative that allows us to think of our past as a continuous and coherent string of events, even though it is probable that large sections of our memory (both episodic and semantic) are irretrievable to our conscious memory at any given time.
Further work on the concept of schemas was conducted by Brewer and Treyens (1981) who demonstrated that the schema-driven expectation of the presence of an object was sometimes sufficient to trigger its erroneous recollection. An experiment was conducted where participants were requested to wait in a room identified as an academic's study and were later asked about the room's contents. A number of the participants recalled having seen books in the study whereas none were present. Brewer and Treyens concluded that the participants' expectations that books are present in academics' studies were enough to prevent their accurate recollection of the scenes.
Assimilation is the reuse of schemata to fit the new information. For example, when an unfamiliar dog is seen, a person will probably just assimilate it into their dog schema. However, if the dog behaves strangely, and in ways that don't seem dog-like, there will be accommodation as a new schema is formed for that particular dog.