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Sunday, February 6, 2011



It would be very difficult to function if we went about our everyday lives without prior knowledge or expectations about the people, roles, norms and events in our community. Social cognition research suggests that our behaviour and interactions in the social world are facilitated by cognitive representations in our minds called schemas – mental or cognitive structures that contain general expectations and knowledge of the world . A schema contains both abstract knowledge and specific examples about a particular social object. It ‘provides hypotheses about incoming stimuli, which includes plans for interpreting and gathering schema-related information’ (Taylor & Crocker, 1981, p. 91). Schemas therefore give us some sense of prediction and control of the social world. They guide what we attend to, what we perceive, what we remember and what we infer. All schemas appear to serve similar functions – they all influence the encoding (taking in and interpretation) of new information, memory for old information and inferences about missing information. Not only are schemas functional, but they are also essential to our well-being. A dominant theme in social cognition research is that we are cognitive misers, economizing as much as we can on the effort we need to expend when processing information. Many judgements, evaluations and inferences we make in the hustle and bustle of everyday life are said to be ‘top of the head’ phenomena (Taylor & Fiske, 1978), made with little thought and considered deliberation. So schemas are a kind of mental short-hand used to simplify reality and facilitate processing. Schema research has been applied to four main areas: person schemas, self schemas, role schemas and event schemas (Fiske & Taylor, 1991).

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