What Is a Schema in Psychology? Definition and Examples (2023)

A schema is a cognitive structure that serves as a framework for one’s knowledge about people, places, objects, and events. Schemas help people organize their knowledge of the world and understand new information. While these mental shortcuts are useful in helping us make sense of the large amount of information we encounter on a daily basis, they can also narrow our thinking and result in stereotypes.

Key Takeaways: Schema

  • A schema is a mental representation that enables us to organize our knowledge into categories.
  • Our schemas help us simplify our interactions with the world. They are mental shortcuts that can both help us and hurt us.
  • We use our schemas to learn and think more quickly. However, some of our schemas may also be stereotypes that cause us to misinterpret or incorrectly recall information.
  • There are many types of schemas, including object, person, social, event, role, and self schemas.
  • Schemas are modified as we gain more information. This process can occur through assimilation or accommodation.
(Video) 🧠 What is a schema? 🧠 Cognitive Developmental Psychology

Schema: Definition and Origins

The term schema was first introduced in 1923 by developmental psychologist Jean Piaget. Piaget proposed a stage theory of cognitive development that utilized schemas as one of its key components. Piaget defined schemas as basic units of knowledge that related toall aspects of the world. He suggested that different schemas are mentally applied in appropriate situations to help people both comprehend and interpret information. To Piaget, cognitive development hinges on an individual acquiring more schemas and increasing the nuance and complexity of existing schemas.

The concept of schema was later described by psychologist Frederic Bartlett in 1932. Bartlett conducted experiments that tested how schemas factored into people’s memory of events. He said that people organize concepts into mental constructs he dubbed schemas. He suggested that schemas help people process and remember information. So when an individual is confronted with information that fits their existing schema, they will interpret it based on that cognitive framework. However, information that doesn’t fit into an existing schema will be forgotten.

Examples of Schemas

For example, when a child is young, they may develop a schema for a dog. They know a dog walks on four legs, is hairy, and has a tail. When the child goes to the zoo for the first time and sees a tiger, they may initially think the tiger is a dog as well. From the child’s perspective, the tiger fits their schema for a dog.

(Video) What is Schema Theory in Psychology?

The child’s parents may explain that this is a tiger, a wild animal. It is not a dog because it doesn’t bark, it doesn’t live in people's houses, and it hunts for its food. After learning the differences between a tiger and a dog, the child will modify their existing dog schema and create a new tiger schema.

As the child grows older and learns more about animals, they will develop more animal schemas. At the same time, their existing schemas for animals like dogs, birds, and cats will be modified to accommodate any new information they learn about animals. This is a process that continues into adulthood for all kinds of knowledge.

Types of Schemas

There are many kinds of schemas that assist us in understanding the world around us, the people we interact with, and even ourselves. Types of schemas include:

(Video) Schemas - Intro to Psychology

  • Object schemas, which help us understand and interpret inanimate objects, including what different objects are and how they work. For example, we have a schema for what a door is and how to use it. Our door schema may also include subcategories like sliding doors, screen doors, and revolving doors.
  • Person schemas, which are created to help us understand specific people. For instance, one’s schema for their significant other will include the way the individual looks, the way they act, what they like and don’t like, and their personality traits.
  • Social schemas, which help us understand how to behave in different social situations. For example, if an individual plans to see a movie, their movie schema provides them with a general understanding of the type of social situation to expect when they go to the movie theater.
  • Event schemas, also called scripts, which encompass the sequence of actions and behaviors one expects during a given event. For example, when an individual goes to see a movie, they anticipate going to the theater, buying their ticket, selecting a seat, silencing their mobile phone, watching the movie, and then exiting the theater.
  • Self-schemas, which help us understand ourselves. They focus on what we know about who we are now, who we were in the past, and who we could be in the future.
  • Role schemas, which encompass our expectations of how a person in a specific social role will behave. For example, we expect a waiter to be warm and welcoming. While not all waiters will act that way, our schema sets our expectations of each waiter we interact with.

Modification of Schema

As our example of the child changing their dog schema after encountering a tiger illustrates, schemas can be modified. Piaget suggested that we grow intellectually by adjusting our schemas when new information comes from the world around us. Schemas can be adjusted through:

  • Assimilation, the process of applying the schemas we already possess to understand something new.
  • Accommodation, the process of changing an existing schema or creating a new one because new information doesn’t fit the schemas one already has.

Impact on Learning and Memory

Schemas help us interact with the world efficiently. They help us categorize incoming information so we can learn and think more quickly. As a result, if we encounter new information that fits an existing schema, we can efficiently understand and interpret it with minimal cognitive effort.

However, schemas can also impact what we pay attention to and how we interpret new information. New information that fits an existing schema is more likely to attract an individual’s attention. In fact, people will occasionally change or distort new information so it will more comfortably fit into their existing schemas.

(Video) What is Schema | Piaget | Cognitive development | Schema psychology

In addition, our schemas impact what we remember. Scholars William F. Brewer and James C. Treyens demonstrated this in a 1981 study. They individually brought 30 participants into a room and told them that the space was the office of the principal investigator. They waited in the office and after 35 seconds were taken to a different room. There, they were instructed to list everything they remembered about the room they had just been waiting in. Participants’ recall of the room was much better for objects that fit into their schema of an office, but they were less successful at remembering objects that didn’t fit their schema. For example, most participants remembered that the office had a desk and a chair, but only eight recalled the skull or bulletin board in the room. In addition, nine participants claimed that they saw books in the office when in reality there weren’t any there.

How Our Schemas Get Us Into Trouble

The study by Brewer and Trevens demonstrates that we notice and remember things that fit into our schemas but overlook and forget things that don’t. In addition, when we recall a memory that activates a certain schema, we may adjust that memory to better fit that schema.

So while schemas can help us efficiently learn and understand new information, at times they may also derail that process. For instance, schemas can lead to prejudice. Some of our schemas will be stereotypes, generalized ideas about whole groups of people. Whenever we encounter an individual from a certain group that we have a stereotype about, we will expect their behavior to fit into our schema. This can cause us to misinterpret the actions and intentions of others.

(Video) Piaget’s Schema: Accommodation and Assimilation of New Information

For example, we may believe anyone who is elderly is mentally compromised. If we meet an older individual who is sharp and perceptive and engage in an intellectually stimulating conversation with them, that would challenge our stereotype. However, instead of changing our schema, we might simply believe the individual was having a good day. Or we might recall the one time during our conversation that the individual seemed to have trouble remembering a fact and forget about the rest of the discussion when they were able to recall information perfectly. Our dependence on our schemas to simplify our interactions with the world may cause us to maintain incorrect and damaging stereotypes.


  • Brewer, William F., and James C. Treyens. "Role of Schemata in Memory for Places." Cognitive Psychology, vol. 13, no. 2, 1981, pp. 207-230. https://doi.org/10.1016/0010-0285(81)90008-6
  • Carlston, Don. “Social Cognition.” Advanced Social Psychology: The State of the Science, edited by Roy F. Baumeister and Eli J. Finkel, Oxford University Press, 2010, pp. 63-99
  • Cherry, Kendra. "The Role of a Schema in Psychology." VeryWell Mind, 26 June 2019. https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-a-schema-2795873
  • McLeod, Saul. “Jean Piaget's Theory of Cognitive Development.”Simply Psychology, 6 June 2018.https://www.simplypsychology.org/piaget.html
  • "Schemas and Memory." Psychologist World. https://www.psychologistworld.com/memory/schema-memory


What is an example of a schema in psychology? ›

For example, your schema for your friend might include information about her appearance, her behaviors, her personality, and her preferences. Social schemas include general knowledge about how people behave in certain social situations. Self-schemas are focused on your knowledge about yourself.

What is schema and its example? ›

Schemas (or schemata) are units of understanding that can be hierarchically categorized as well as webbed into complex relationships with one another. For example, think of a house. You probably get an immediate mental image of something out of a kid's storybook: four windows, front door, suburban setting, chimney.

What is schema in simple words? ›

A schema in psychology and other social sciences describes a mental concept. It provides information to an individual about what to expect from diverse experiences and circumstances. These schemas are developed and based on life experiences and provide a guide to one's cognitive processes and behavior.

What is a scheme in psychology? ›

n. a cognitive structure that contains an organized plan for an activity, thus representing generalized knowledge about an entity and serving to guide behavior. For example, there is a simple sucking scheme of infancy, applied first to a nipple and later to a thumb, soft toy, and so forth.

What is the best example of schema? ›

Examples of schemata include rubrics, perceived social roles, stereotypes, and worldviews.

How do you explain schema to students? ›

Schema is your background knowledge; it's what you already know before you even pick up the book. Its major “ingredients” are your memories, the books you've read, the places you've been, the movies you've watched, the vocabulary you know, etc. Your schema, or background knowledge, is highly fueled by your interests.

What is an example of Piaget's schema? ›

For example, a child may have a schema about a type of animal, such as a dog. If the child's sole experience has been with small dogs, a child might believe that all dogs are small, furry, and have four legs.

Which is the best definition of Schema theory? ›

Definition: Schema theory is a branch of cognitive science concerned with how the brain structures knowledge. A schema is an organized unit of knowledge for a subject or event. It is based on past experience and is accessed to guide current understanding or action.

What is the main idea of schema? ›

The Schema theory thinks that comprehending a text is an interactive process between the reader' s background knowledge and the text. Comprehension of the text requires the ability to relate the textual material to one' s own knowledge.

What is the purpose of schema? ›

The purpose of a schema is to define and describe a class of XML documents by using these constructs to constrain and document the meaning, usage and relationships of their constituent parts: datatypes, elements and their content, attributes and their values, entities and their contents and notations.

What is schema effect in psychology? ›

Schemata influence attention and the absorption of new knowledge: people are more likely to notice things that fit into their schema, while re-interpreting contradictions to the schema as exceptions or distorting them to fit. Schemata have a tendency to remain unchanged, even in the face of contradictory information.

What is schema in child psychology? ›

What is a schema? Schemas are described as patterns of repeated behaviour which allow children to explore and express developing ideas and thoughts through their play and exploration. The repetitive actions of schematic play allow children to construct meaning in what they are doing.

What are the different types of schemas in psychology? ›

There are many types of schemas, including object, person, social, event, role, and self schemas. Schemas are modified as we gain more information. This process can occur through assimilation or accommodation.

What is an example of a self schema? ›

A few examples of self-schemas are: exciting or dull; quiet or loud; healthy or sickly; athletic or nonathletic; lazy or active; and geek or jock. If a person has a schema for "geek or jock," for example, he might think of himself as a bit of a computer geek and would possess a lot of information about that trait.

What is an example of a schema in child development? ›

Have you seen a toddler repeat an activity over and over again – tipping over the Lego box and emptying its contents on the floor, swishing the paint around in a circle, rolling their toy car over the uneven tiles and refusing to stop? It's actually all part of their essential brain development and is called a schema.

What is Piaget's explanation of schemas? ›

Piaget suggested that we understand the world around us by using schemas. A schema is a pattern of learning, linking perceptions, ideas and actions to make sense of the world. Piaget described it simply as the “way we see the world”.

How do you use schema in the classroom? ›

A schema is a general idea about something. Its plural form is schemata. Schemata can help students learn. In order to use schemata in education, teachers should activate prior knowledge, link new information to old information and link different schemata to each other.

How are schemas activated? ›

The activation of a learner's schema may be recognized as the process in which “textual stimuli signal the direction or area for the reader to look for and evoke the relevant schema from memory into the present reading task” (Li, 1997).

How many schemas can a person have? ›

Most people tend to develop more than one schema. Experts have identified 18 distinct schemas, but they all fall into one of five categories or domains: Domain I, disconnection and rejection, includes schemas that make it difficult to develop healthy relationships.

How do schemas affect mental health? ›

Schemas or 'negative life beliefs' can lead to low self-esteem, lack of connection to others, problems expressing feelings and emotions and excessive worrying about basic safety issues. The beliefs can also create strong attraction to inappropriate partners and lead to dissatisfying careers.

What are the 4 schemas? ›

There are four main types of schemas. These are centered around objects, the self, roles, and events. Schemas can be changed and reconstructed throughout a person's life. The two processes for doing so are assimilation and accommodation.

How can schemas influence our behavior? ›

Schemas can influence what you pay attention to, how you interpret situations, or how you make sense of ambiguous situations. Once you have a schema, you unconsciously pay attention to information that confirms it and ignore or minimize information that contradicts it.

How do schemas influence memory? ›

Schemas can have a negative impact on memory performance. According to the false memory literature, activation of a schema can often lead to false memory for non-presented information that is consistent with the activated schema.

How can schema influence our thinking? ›

One way schemas can influence cognition is that they can affect our ability to comprehend new information. When we're exposed to new information we relate it to our existing knowledge (our schemas) and this can improve our comprehension of that information (as seen in Bransford and Johnson's study).

What is another word for schema? ›


1 outline, framework, model.

Why is schema important in learning? ›

Schemas allow learners to reason about unfamiliar learning situations and interpret these situations in terms of their generalized knowledge. In cognitive and educational psychology, schema-based learning is grounded in capturing and using expert-generated schemas as frameworks for teaching and learning.

How do schemas help us understand depression? ›

In particular, when the depression schema conforms to a disease model, people tend to feel more empathy toward those suffering from depressive symptoms, hold fewer stigmatizing attitudes toward the condition, and attribute less responsibility to the individual for the current situation they find themselves in.

What is a schema in psychology memory? ›

A memory schema is an organized group of past experiences and associations, which become active depending on context to help inform decisions and make predictions (Ghosh and Gilboa, 2014; Hebscher et al., 2016).

Is a schema a mental construct? ›

A schema is a mental construct consisting of a cluster or collection of related concepts (Bartlett, 1932). There are many different types of schemata, and they all have one thing in common: schemata are a method of organizing information that allows the brain to work more efficiently.

What is a schema simply psychology? ›

A schema is a knowledge structure that allows organisms to interpret and understand the world around them. Schemata are a method of organizing information that allows the brain to work more efficiently. Piaget's theory of cognitive development put the concept at the forefront in cognitive science.

How do we use schemas in our everyday life? ›

A schema is a mental representation that enables us to organize our knowledge into categories. Our schemas help us simplify our interactions with the world. They are mental shortcuts that can both help us and hurt us. We use our schemas to learn and think more quickly.

What is an example of gender schema? ›

For example, a child who lives in a very traditional culture might believe that a woman's role is in the caring and raising of children, while a man's role is in work and industry. Through these observations, children form schema related to what men and women can and cannot do.


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