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Evaluate schema theory

A cognitive schema can be defined as a mental representation of knowledge stored in the brain. A schema can be seen as a network of knowledge, beliefs, and expectations about particular aspects of the world.

Schema processing is to a large extent automatic, i.e. processed with little attention. It involves information from two sources: Input from the sensory system (bottom-up processes) and information stored in memory (top-down processes), which is used to interpret the incoming information (pattern recognition, interpretation).

Study to use: Bartlett (1932)

Possible ways in which schemas affect memory

·         People tend to remember the meaning (gist) of something, not the actual wording.

·         People use stored knowledge to make sense of incoming information. If the information is unclear or incomplete, they fill in the blanks or interpret using their schemas. This is called “reconstructive memory” and results in distortion.

·         People tend to ignore information that is not in line with their schemas (aschematic information). This may lead to bias in information processing (e.g. in stereotyping where people ignore information that is not in line with their schema).

·         People tend to focus on information that is in line with their schemas (schematic information). This may result in “confirmation bias”.

Study to use: Darley and Gross (1983)

Strengths of schema theory


·         Schema theory has proven extremely useful in explaining many cognitive processes (e.g. perception, memory, and reasoning).

·         Schema theory can be used to explain the reconstructive nature of memory, for example in eye witness testimony, stereotyping, gender identity (gender schema) and cultural differences (cultural schemas).

Limitations of schema theory


·         Cohen (1993) argued that: the concept of schema is too vague to be useful and it is not clear how schemas are acquired in the first place.

·         Schema theory may focus too much on the inaccuracies of memory but most of the time people remember accurately.