Schema Theory

Can you remember what you ate for breakfast this morning?  Or the last words that you spoke to your best friend?Or what you did on your 11th birthday?  Why do we remember certain moments so vividly, while other moments quickly fade from our minds?  Can your memory be trusted?  Is it possible to remember things that never happened?  

Many people assume that memory works kind of like a video camera.  Your mind "stores" what you experience, and you remember the past by "replaying" a mental picture of that event.  Forgetting is simply the mind's inability to retrieve an old "file" from the past.  However, research into memory suggests that this common sense view is not really how our minds work.  Let's try a quick exercise to explore why.
Video Activity

1. Watch the video below, in which two memory researchers read a paragraph aloud.  Your task is to remember the paragraph is as much detail as possible.  After the researchers finish reading the paragraph, before they reveal the "seven magic words", pause the video and write down as much as you can remember.

2.  Once you have heard the "seven magic words", try watching the video a second time.  Try writing down as many details from the paragraph as you can again, and compare it to your first attempt.  By how much did your memory improve?
What is a schema?

You probably were able to remember much more of the paragraph once you knew it was about washing clothes.  What caused your memory to improve?  This experiment suggests that memory doesn't really work like a video camera or tape recorder.  Unlike a tape recorder, which faithfully records each word, it is very difficult to memorize a paragraph, word for word, when you don't understand the overall meaning.  But once you knew that the paragraph was about washing clothes, you were able to make connections between what you heard and what you already know about doing the laundry.  You were no longer trying (and failing) to memorize each word on its own - you were processing the information by relating it to what you already know about the world.

We all have a great deal of information stored about the world - for example, all of us can picture what a dog, a pickup truck, or a shopping mall typically look like.  These mental representations of the world are called schemas.  A schema is a "mental model" or "mental framework", containing everything you know about a particular object, person, situation or event.  Schemas are derived from our prior experience and knowledge - for instance, you know what a dog typically looks and behaves like because of all your past experiences with dogs.

Close your eyes, and picture a child's birthday party.  What do you imagine?  Do you picture balloons, a birthday cake with candles, gift-wrapped presents, friends and family, and singing Happy Birthday?  This mental representation of a child's birthday party is an example of a schema.  If you were invited to a young cousin's birthday party, for instance, you would already have a pretty good idea of what to expect, based on your schema for children's birthdays.  (It is worth noting, however, that this schema is a cultural schema, as a typical birthday party may be celebrated differently in various cultures).  Schemas play an important role in memory and behavior, including the following:

  • Schemas help us to organize memories & help in recall.  If you were asked about a child's birthday party you attended, you would likely use your schema of children's birthdays to help you remember the most important details.  You might refresh your memory by asking yourself, "Was there a birthday cake?  What flavor was it?  What presents were given?  When did we sing happy birthday? What games or activities did we play?".  Your schemas help you to recall memories by retrieving the key details of past events.

  • Schemas help guide behavior. Imagine you are going to watch a movie in a newly opened cinema.  Would you be able to figure out how to buy tickets, popcorn and see the right movie, even though you have never been to this particular cinema before?  Well, of course.  This is because you have a schema for going out to the movies that tells you what to expect in a cinema, and what procedures to follow.  You know there will probably be an information screen with the movie showtimes, a ticket counter to purchase tickets, a concession stand to buy popcorn, and a large room with seats where you will watch the movie.  

  • Schemas help you predict what will happen next. If you were attending a children's birthday party and the lights suddenly went out right after finishing dinner, would you think it was an emergency?  Or would you understand that this was a cue to sing "Happy Birthday" as the cake is brought out?  Schemas help us make sense of what's happening in the world around us, and thus help us to predict what will happen next.

Research: Bradsford & Johnson

Aim: Investigate how schemas help us to store new information in our memory


Participants are randomly divided into three groups.  All participants are read a paragraph describing a number of steps in a certain procedure.

  • Group 1 are told that the paragraph is about doing laundry before they hear the paragraph
  • Group 2 are told that the paragraph is about doing laundry after they hear the paragraph, before they are asked to recall it
  • Group 3 are not told what the paragraph is about

All participants are then tested on how much of the paragraph they can recall

Findings: The group that were told the topic of the paragraph before they listened to it (Group 1) had significantly better memory than the other two groups.


  • Schemas help participants encode new information by making it possible to organize and interpret the information. 

  • Memory isn't about simply "storing a copy" of what you hear, but involves actively interpreting what you hear based on prior knowledge of the world.


  • This study is easy to replicate, and has high reliability.  It is easy to get the same results as the original study.

  • This study utilizes an experimental design, demonstrating a causal relationship between schema activation (the IV) and ability to recall (the DV)

  • This study involves an artifical task - it would be quite unusual to be read a paragraph without knowing having any idea what the paragraph is about.  Therefore, this study may not have much relevance for everyday situations involving memory

Schemas & distorted memories

Schemas do a great job of helping us remember, but this increase in memory efficiency may come at the cost of accuracy.  Remember that schemas improve our memory by relating new information to what we already know.  Sometimes, the things we already know can contaminate our memory, leading to false or distorted recollection.  This can happen in two ways:

  • Information that is consistent with our schemas will be remembered well, but information which is inconsistent with our schemas may be forgotten or distorted to "fit" our schemas.  This distortion happens at the moment of memory encoding - when a new event is stored into memory.  For instance, you might remember singing "Happy Birthday" at a children's birthday party, because that is consistent with your expectations of what normally happens at such a party.  But you would likely be far less likely to remember any other songs which were sung at the party, especially if these aren't typical birthday songs.

  • When you can't remember an event well, you may "fill in" the missing details with your best guess, based on your schema for that event.  This distortion happens at the moment of retrieval - when you are trying to remember an event from the past.  For instance, suppose you are trying to remember all of the people who attended your 10th birthday party.  You know, based on your schema for birthday parties, that typically your family and friends would be at your party.  So, you try to remember who your best friends and close family members were at that age, and soon enough you have conjured up a list of likely attendees.  Your memory may be accurate - but then again, you be wrong.  
Try it Out

  • Click on this link and read a short story titled "War of the Ghosts", a Native American folk legend.  Read the story aloud to yourself, trying to remember as much possible.

  • Now, close your browser window so you no longer can see the story.  Open up a Word document, and type as much of the story as you can remember.  Try to remember as much as you can, but don't get frustrated if you can't remember everything - that is the point of this activity.
  • Open the original story again, and compare the full story with your recollection of it.  What details stayed the same?  What details changed?  
Research study: Bartlett

Aim: Investigate how cultural schemas can influence memory


  • British participants read a Native American fold story called "War of the Ghosts" twice, then asked to reproduce it from memory soon after, as well as on a later date.  (On another variation of the study, participants told the story to someone else, who then had to remember the story and write it down) 

  • The content and style of the story was unfamiliar to the British readers, as it was not written according to the storytelling conventions of English literature


  • When the participants recalled the story, the length of the story became shorter, and the story became more conventional.  Unusual details (such as the unfamiliar names, or the revelation that the warriors were actually ghosts) were left out or distorted (for instance, some participants remembered "boats" instead of the unfamiliar "canoes")

  • No matter how much the recollection of the story differed from the original, it remained a coherent, complete story.  This suggests that participants tried to remember the story as a whole, rather than trying to memorize specific details individually


  • Participants found it difficult to remember the "War of the Ghosts" because the story does not fit any of our cultural schemas.  It is neither a typical horror story or war story, and hence it is difficult to relate to our existing knowledge of the world

  • Cultural schemas can lead to memory distortions, as we try to "fit" the new information to our existing schemas


  • This study supports the hypothesis that schemas can lead to distorted or false memories

  • As this study took place a long time ago (1932), the conventions of modern Psychological research had yet to be developed.  For instance, participants were not given standardized instructions, suggesting that the procedure was not carefully controlled

  • There is debate over the ecological validity of this study.  Some may argue that trying to memorize a story is an articial task, which has questionable relevance for real life.  On the other hand, we are often exposed to information second hand, through the telling of family and friends, which is not unlike trying to remember a story.

Evaluating Schema Theory

Schema theory is very useful in understanding how memory works.  As the research by Bradsford & Johnson indicates, our memory improves dramatically when we can make connections between new information and what we already know.  In other words, information that is consistent with our existing schemas will be easier to store in memory.  Understanding how memory works can be very helpful in the field of Education, for instance, or whenever trying to learn something new.  Conversely, schema theory can also explain why, in certain situations, people may hold incomplete or false memories.  When information does not fit our schemas, it may be ignored or distorted, and this can explain many real life situations (such as faulty eyewitness testimony) in which memory turns out be far from reliable.

On the other hand, schema theory suffers from a number of limitations.  Perhaps the most significant is the difficulty in defining exactly what a schema is.  A schema is an example of a hypothesized construct, and if there is no clear consensus over what a schema is, then the concept of a schema may be too vague to be useful.
TOK Link

Although schema theory has been very influential in the field of Psychology, it is also a controversial theory.  It is not possible to observe a schema directly - nobody has ever looked at a schema under a microscope, for instance.  Nobody claims that there is a specific part of the brain called a "schema", unlike a hippocampus or a frontal lobe.

This raises many difficult questions.  What exactly is a schema?  Are schemas real "things"?  How can we study something if we can't observe it directly?

A schema is an example of a theoretical construct  - a concept that can help explain observed findings, even though we can't see it directly.  The concept of schemas can help explain a multitude of research findings, such as why participants remember the paragraph about washing clothes so much better when they knew the topic, and why British participants find it so hard to remember a Native American folk story.

Other examples of constructs in Psychology include intelligence, motivation, self-esteem, and so forth.  These constructs are all useful in explaining different aspects of behavior.

Some questions to consider on constructs:

  • Are constructs invented or discovered?

  • How can we know which constructs are useful, and which should be discarded?

  • As biological understanding of the brain improves, will it still be useful to refer to constructs? Why or why not?


  • I can define what a schema is

  • I can explain three ways that schemas influence memory or behavior

  • I can explain two ways that schemas can cause distorted or false memories

  • I can describe the aim, procedure, findings, and conclusion of Bradsford & Johnson's study, and evaluate the research

  • I can describe the aim, procedure, findings and conclusion of Bartlett's study, and evaluate the research
Quiz Yourself!

1.  Fill in the blanks.  "Many people assume that memory  ____________, but research suggests that memory is  _________________"

(a) works like a video camera / made up of schemas

(b) made up of schemas / works like a video camera

(c) works like a video camera / influenced by prior knowledge

(d) influenced by prior knowledge / works like a video camera

2.  Why is the concept of a typical birthday party an example of a cultural schema?

(a) Because birthday parties are part of many cultural traditions

(b) Because culture defines what a birthday party ought to be like

(c) Because not everyone celebrates their birthday 

(d) Because concepts, like culture, cannot be directly observed or studied

3.  Which sentence best summarizes the findings of Bartlett's study?

(a) The story became disjointed, but participants were able to remember the most unfamiliar details most vividly

(b) The story became disjointed, and participants often misremembered unfamiliar details in the story

(c) The story remained a coherent whole, and participants were able to remember the most unfamiliar details most vividly

(d) The story remained a coherent whole, but particants often misremembered unfamiliar details in the story

4.  Which is NOT one of the predicted effects of schemas on memory?

(a) When you aren't completely sure of what happened, you may fill the gaps in your memory with a "best guess"

(b) Unusual, surprising details will be remembered with increased accuracy

(c) Schemas improve memory by relating new information to prior knowledge

(d) Schema-consistent information will be remembered better

5.  What is the main criticism of schema theory?

(a) Schema theory has not been supported by research evidence

(b) A schema cannot be observed or studied directly

(c) Schemas can lead to memory distortions

​(d) The concept of a schema is not well defined


1 - C, 2 - B, 3 - D, 4 - B, 5 - D