Schema: Scripted Pattern of Thoughts

A schema is a generalization of past experiences that forms a scripted pattern of thought. Having these patterns makes it easier for our brain to process and remember information. Because schemata are fixed ideas that we have built through personal experience, they tend to alter new information to fit our preexisting understanding of the word making an objective perception and memory of reality difficult. How drastically schemata impact our memory was shown by an extensive study conducted by Frederic Bartlett. 

The full story

A schema is a generalization of past experiences that forms a scripted pattern of thought. For example, we all have a specific process in mind when we think about going to a restaurant. Some imagine standing in line, placing an order, eating and then throwing the trash away. Others imagine being seated, then ordering, sharing everything, and then paying and leaving a generous tip.

We can think of a schema as a mental framework in the form of a kid’s toy. Things we already fully understand, say a triangle, get into our brain without a problem. When new information is similar to what we know, say a square, it can enter the brain through assimilation. For completely new information, here a star, this doesn’t work. We need accommodation and to change the schema itself. 

Assimilation is the cognitive process of making new information fit in with your existing understanding of the world. It works if new information is close to what we already know.  To process the new information we make it fit into our existing schemas. A process which, by definition, changes the information. 

We have to use accommodation if things are so unique that they don’t fit into our existing schema. To comprehend new information with our existing schema we have to make new experiences to modify our schema or form an entirely new one. In other words, to understand something truly new, we first have to remodel our brain-space. Just imagine you were born completely color blind. Not a million books or the best teacher could ever truly explain red to you. You need to experience it to accommodate the idea.

War of ghosts experiment

Frederic Bartlett demonstrated how schema unconsciously alters our perception and memory in what became known as the War of the Ghosts Experiment. 

He did that by reading to his British students, a strange Native American folk tale from the Chinook tribe. The story involved ghosts, hunting seals, going to war, and canoeing. Later he monitored how the students recalled what they remembered from the story – first days, then weeks, and then months after. Three striking things happened.

1. Omission of unfamiliar details

Multiple students did not recall a part about the Chinook’s going seal hunting. This happens because hunting seals does not naturally fit into the cultural context of rich British students, in other words they do not have an existing schema for this kind of information.

Therefore they have a hard time understanding it and hence can’t move it into their long-term memory for later recall. And so they forget. Bartlett argued that psychologically we conceive anything that doesn’t fit our schema, as irreverent.

2. Familiarization of things strange

Some of the students that initially did remember the part about hunting seals, later recalled the activity as going fishing. A canoe that was loaded with weapons, was remembered as a rowboat.

This happens because when we lack the words to describe new unique experiences, we use idioms or figures of speech. In other words, we channel unfamiliar information through the framework of a familiar schema. And because we do that every time we recall that unique experience, over time it becomes more familiar and less authentic.

3. Rationalization of the illogical

Right after it was told, most students thought that the tale was strange. A few weeks later, however, it suddenly made a lot of sense. The students began to add terms such as “therefore” and “because” and unconsciously made the story casual and logically coherent. 

Whenever they retrieved it from their memory they added a reason. The Chinooks didn’t go hunting seals or to war in their canoes. They took the boats because they wanted to go fishing. Some students even altered the story structure to those popular in Hollywood movies.

Bartlett noted that each time the students were asked to recall the story, it had changed a bit. Which means that long-term memories are neither fixed nor immutable, but are constantly being adjusted as schemata evolve with experience. This supports the existentialist view that people construct the past in a constant process of adjustment.

In other words, much of what we “remember” is rationalized into a self-narrative that allows us to think of our life as a coherent string of events. Jean Piaget, who coined the term, argued that we construct our experiences into schemata so we can make sense of the world.

“Wow… this is more school than school. This is actually really interesting.”

– Andrew Pang


Dig deeper

Classroom activity

Repeat the experiment of Bartlett and let your students experience how their schema alters the way they remember a strange tale.

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