Schema Theory – a catch-all explanation?

Schema Theory has been around a very long time. It is over 100 years since Bartlett conducted his first experiments on perception and memory at the University of Cambridge, and his book Remembering, written in 1932, is fascinating. He used a repeated reproduction method (where the same participant does a written reproduction of a story at different time intervals after hearing the original).  Later he used a serial reproduction method (where different participants pass their written reproduction of the story on from person to person, with only the first seeing or hearing the original). He used an unfamiliar Native American story and his British students to show that memory is an “imaginative reconstruction” based on schemata (schemas) that are themselves developed through the senses and experience (Bartlett, 1932). We want to understand the unfamiliar and therefore we try hard to shape it to fit our preconceptions. The term schema or schemata (plural) was not invented by Bartlett. It was first used in psychology* by Piaget in 1923, but it fits the example of memory as well as it fits Piaget’s example of cognitive development of children.

Explains Everything? When we look at this in a little more detail, it becomes clear that schema theory can be applied to heuristics (thinking fast/system 1 thinking), stereotyping, human relationships, child development and mental health. For example, in 1976, Aaron Beck developed his theory of “dysfunctional schemas” being responsible for major depression. In 1954 Allport pointed out that cognitive processes, such as categorisation, underlie stereotyping. Schemas are categories, frameworks or mental representations and so may be used to explain all human behaviour, it seems, that is based on perception, thought or memory, which seems to encompass pretty much everything in cognitive psychology!

Critics of schema theory point to this tendency for it to be able to explain all our cognitive processes and any actions based on them. Psychologists such as Cohen (1993) have argued that it is a vague concept. It also does not explain how we understand new information that has no link to any of our pre-existing schemas. Of course, Bartlett would have replied that we change it to fit what we know, but this seems to exclude novelty and creativity in our understanding.

However, until we have something better, schema theory seems to explain and predict most human behaviour, and maybe this should be seen as a strength, rather than a limitation.

*Philosophy students may point out that the concept of schema was used by Kant in the Critique of Pure Reason, first published in German in 1781. But we can disregard that for our purposes.

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