Individual Differences


Roles of Schemas in Personality

Last updated:
21 Oct 2003


With regard to personality, the cognitive perspective focuses on organised mental structures of experience, including memory, schemas, scripts, and attributions.

We are surrounded by a mass information, therefore in order to survive and be efficient in progressing towards our goals, we must have ways of sorting through and selectively attending to the mass of information.  By using stored "information guides", we can simplify and structure the world of information.  These "guides" are sometimes called heuristics, models, algorithims, schemas and scripts.  Whilst technically these may be different terms, for our purposes they are important because they are all "tools" for filtering and interpretation information.  By the way, information is meant here in a broad sense - information that arrives externally through each of the senses on an almost constant basis, but also information that may arise from within, from the unconscious,  or memory, or newly created information.

You may not be aware of it, but you are surrounded by more information than you can use – you can’t deal with it all, so you impose organisation and use just a few bits and you make inferences about the rest.  In this way, cognitive organisation is good because it saves mental resources and allows us to understand events using selected pieces of information.

But cognitive organisation can also be bad in unusual situations and when we get stuck in negative perceptions (e.g., depressive self-schemas) or when there are novel events.

Because of all this information coming in and the need to simplify things we tend to treat a piece of information as a member of a category and we can then respond immediately in a way established for other members of this category. We do not treat each tree (whether an individual ash or elm, or prunus) as a completely unique category, but rather identify it as a member of the category “TREE” and we can then respond accordingly.

Similarly, when we meet people and we tend to treat them as members of a category rather than as a totally unique creature that we’ve never come across before. The category may be race, gender, religion, nationality, dress style, whatever. In cognitive psychology these categories are called schemas. A schema is a knowledge structure or a cognitive structure that organises information and thereby influences how we perceive and respond to further information about objects, people and events. In other words, we impose order on experiences derived from recurrences of similar qualities across repeated events.

A helpful formulaic representation is

Perception = memory (i.e., stored guides) + incoming information

If I say “VEHICLE” do you know what I’m referring to? You probably have a generalised idea of a motorised contraption that goes on the road and has 4 wheels. But you’d need more information to know exactly what I’m referring to. So you know for example that your “vehicle” schema is say different from your “plant” schema or your “person” schema or your “clothing” schema but you don’t necessarily know what subcategory of the schema I’m referring to.

It is generally agreed that for physical objects we arrange the schemas hierarchically. Now you have a schema for vehicle for example, and you probably also have a schema for “car” and one for “sports car’ and so these can exist at different levels.

Younger children for example tend to use middle level schemas more frequently. Higher level categories like “vehicle” are distinctive but more abstract and not as specific as the next category level. Low level categories are specific but may not always be cognitively economical to use.

EXEMPLARS: Schemas are usually assumed to include information about specific cases or exemplars as well as information about the more generic sense of what the category is. That is for any given category, say, vehicle, you can bring to mind specific examples of vehicles and you can bring to mind a general sense of the category on the whole e.g. a “typical” vehicle (something that is a motorised contraption on the road and has 4 wheels).

PROTOTYPES: Some researchers believe that some members of a category are the “best members” that is they best exemplify the category. For example a Porsche might best exemplify the category of sports car for you and a Maserati might best exemplify the category for me. This is called a prototype. Some theories suggest that it is the best actual member you have found so far and others that it’s an idealised member, an average of the members you’ve found so far.

ATTRIBUTES: On the other hand some researchers say that no prototypes are stored at all. Instead the category or schema is simply a collection of attributes or elements that help define what the category is. In the case of a sports car those attributes may be sleek, low, racy looking, expensive looking etc.

It has also been suggested that many categories don’t have explicit definitions. The features of a category or schema all contribute to its nature but aren’t necessary for category membership. For example your schema for birds probably includes the idea that birds fly. But there are birds that DON’T fly. So flying can’t actually be a defining feature if birds. But hearing that a creature flies does make it more likely that it will fit the bird schema than say the cow schema. So flying counts for something!

FUZZY SET: As with our bird example, some schemas are defined in a fuzzy way by a set of criteria that are IMPORTANT but not necessary. e.g. flying

DEFAULT INFORMATION: Many events don’t contain complete information about what’s going on. If there’s enough information available to bring up a schema then you get additional information from memory. e.g. if I told you I did the washing this morning, you would assume I was talking about clothes, that I used washing powder, that I used a washing machine, etc. even though none of these thins was mentioned. Research shows that people may even REMEMBER things that they haven’t explicitly been told if it fits their schema of the event. (you may think I mentioned the washing powder even though I didn’t). You would probably not assume that I was talking about washing the dog by hand using biocarbonate of soda. Information you assume to be true (unless you’ve been told otherwise) is called default information.

STEREOTYPES: When one aspect of a stereotype is brought to mind you tend to assume other aspects as well. If you hear that a person is a Liberal Voter you may also assume that they love John Howard, are conservative in thinking and dress style, are generally warmongering and anti refugees (if that’s what your “Liberal Voter” schema is). People automatically assume schema-consistent information even when it it’s not available. So default information is brought from memory to fill in the gaps.

Role of Schemas

Any event is a collection of elements: people, movements, objects etc. These various elements might just as well be random unless you have some sense of what the event is ABOUT. In the same way the attributes of an object are just a collection of bits unless you have an overriding sense of what he object IS. The schema is the glue that holds all the bits of information together.
Schemas: are used to recognize new experiences (new events are identified by comparing them to existing schemas). They affect perception, affect encoding, affect memory recall and become self-perpetuating. You are more likely to remember information that CONFIRMS your expectations than doesn’t.


Hazel Rose Markus in 1977 suggested that the self is a concept or a category like any other concept or category and that people form cognitive structures about the self just as they do about other phenomena. These cognitive structures are called SELF-schemas.

Self-schemas are cognitive generalisations about oneself, derived from past experience. The meaning is similar to the meaning of the term self-concept. Our self-schemas organise and guide the processing of self-related information. Self-schemas, like other schemas influence whether information is attended to and how easily it is recalled. Thus it is easier to encode things that fit into it and to remember things that fit into it.

Once we have developed a schema about ourselves there is a strong tendency for that schema to be maintained by a bias in what we attend to, a bias in what we remember, and a bias in what we are prepared to accept as true about ourselves. In other words our self-schema becomes self-perpetuating.

Self-schemas tend to be larger and more complex than other schemas and there are individual differences in the complexity of self-schemas.

“Some people have many different self-aspects, which they keep distinct from each other. Each role these people play in life, each goal they have, each activity they engage in, has its own separate existence in their self-image. These people are high in self-complexity. Other people’s self-aspects are less distinct from each other. These people are lower in self-complexity.

For people who are low in self-complexity, feelings relating to a bad event in one aspect of life tend to spill over into other aspects of the sense of self (Linville, 1987). This spill over doesn’t happen as much for people high in self-complexity because the separations and boundaries they’ve developed between self-aspects prevents it.

The way people acquire (or fail to acquire) complexity in the self-schema may be partly a matter of how much you think about yourself. Nasby (1985) found that people who report spending a lot of time thinking about themselves have self-schemas of greater complexity and detail than people who think about themselves less. Apparently the very process of thinking about yourself causes a continued growth and articulation of the self-schema.” Carver & Scheier (2000, p. 445)

“Another way of thinking about self-complexity is that it involves a family of self-schemas, rather than a single one. In a way, you’re a different person when you’re in different contexts because you make different assumptions about yourself, and you attend to different aspects of what’s going on. When you’re with one set of friends at a party to another set in a study group to being at home with your parents, it’s as though you’re putting aside one schema about yourself and taking up a new one.
Not only may people have distinct self-schemas in different contexts, but self-schemas may vary in another way. Markus and her colleagues (e.g., Markus & Nurius, 1986), suggest that people develop images of selves they’d like to become, selves they’re afraid of becoming and selves they expect to become. Other selves that have been suggested include the disliked self (Oglivie, 1987) and selves you think you ought to be (Higgins, 1987, 1990). These various possible selves can be used as motivators, because they provide goals to approach or to avoid.” Carver & Scheier (2000, p. 446).

Examples of self-schemas

Because the self=schema contains our ideas about what we are like and what we are capable of doing it affects what we do.

  • If we think we’re reliable we’ll try to always live up to that image.
  • If we think we are sociable we are more likely to seek the company of others.
  • If we think we’re attractive we’ll be more confident in our romantic dealings with the opposite sex.
  • If we think we’re shy we are more likely to avoid social situations.
    We have an elaborate schema based on the way we’ve behaved awkwardly in social situations in the past and we’ll therefore interpret new situations in the light of this knowledge. We become an expert in shyness. We then become more ready to see our social experiences in the light of our social deficiencies. This becomes a lens through which we view the world.