Schemas, scripts, and personal theories – their role in learning and memory

Dr. Donna L. Roberts

How do we know what we know?
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Contemporary cognitive psychologists define schemas as “mental frameworks or bodies of knowledge that contain details about attributes and the relationship between attributes and function to organize, synthesize and interpret information” (Carlson, Martin & Buskist, 2004, p. 621). As such, they encompass a broad array of interrelated concepts in a meaningful organization whereby new information encountered is measured against this pre-existing structure of data. The original notion of a schema dates back to Immanuel Kant (1781), who argued that concepts only had meaning insofar as they could relate to knowledge the individual already possessed. In addition, the four basic principles of how schemata become involved in the encoding process are: selection, abstraction, interpretation, and integration.

Schemas derived from prior experience influence the way one attends to, encodes, interprets and retrieves new information and novel environmental stimulus. Specifically, when we process information to store in memory, it is typically fit into our existing collection of understanding (Carlson, Martin & Buskist, 2004; Ormrod, 2004). Thus, the existing structural schemas shape the interpretations and thought processes we engage in when attempting to understand new information.

Schemas exist for all the fundamental concepts one has learned, both in general categories and specific examples – i.e., for people, roles, events, places and objects (Carlson, Martin & Buskist, 2004; Ormrod, 2004). For example, we have a schema for what we consider a successful businessman, which differs from our schema for an airline pilot. While on the one hand, these mental structures help us to makes sense of our experience, put it into context, and solve new problems, they can also lead to stereotypes and blocked thinking such as mental sets and functional fixedness. For example, our schemas for typical location of objects might help us locate someone’s medicine or a first aid kit when we are in an unfamiliar setting and an emergency arises. However, they can also lead to misconceptions such as when an individual is judged or even discriminated against because of the schemas that one has for a certain racial or ethnic group.

Scripts, a closely related concept, refer to “structures that describe appropriate sequences of events in a particular context” (Schank & Abelson, 1977, p. 41). According to researchers, scripts are comprised of several features, including: props, roles, opening conditions, scenes, and results, and represent default-like stereotypical representations of common experiences. Other research (Bower, Black & Turner, 1979) has suggested that scripts influence learning and memory by serving as guides for what individuals will recall and recognize, and ultimately what they “know” to be true. Basically, schemata about activities or processes are called scripts. We have many scripts in our long-term memory for a variety of familiar activities, which may be looked at as complex action-concepts.

Cognitive psychologists theorize that scripts enable individuals to fill in the gaps of missing information in certain contexts, thus allowing them to solve problems and react appropriately even in novel situations (Ormrod, 2004; Sternberg, 2003). Scripts for example, can assist one in determining what to do when lost in a new city by serving as a reference set of general strategies and scenarios that have worked or been observed in similar situations – i.e., find the city center and work from there, keep the mountains on the right, consult a map, ask for directions, etc. Schemata and scripts have proven to be useful constructs beyond traditional cognitive psychology. Social schemata can be very important in processing information about people in social situations, gender-role stereotyping, or responses to mass media.

Personal theories refer to another set of internal mental representations, generally coded as cause-effect relationships, which an individual accesses to process stimuli and understand the world. Also known as folk theories, these constructs represent the working definitions individuals hold about various aspects of the world around them and how it functions (O’Dea, n.d.; Ormrod, 2004). Malle (2003), stressing the integral role of these theories in the development of social cognition, further defines these folk theories as “sophisticated conceptual frameworks that relate different mental states to each other and connect them to behavior” (p. 2). He expands on the explanation of the function of this framework stating,

As a conceptual framework, the folk theory of mind operates prior to any particular conscious or unconscious cognition and provides the framing or interpretation of that cognition. Central to this framing is the concept of intentionality, which distinguishes intentional action (caused by the agent’s intention and decision) from unintentional behavior (caused by internal or external events without the intervention of the agent’s decision). A second important distinction separates publicly observable from publicly unobservable (i.e., mental) events. Together, the two distinctions define the kinds of events in social interaction that people attend to, wonder about, and try to explain the conceptual underpinning of all (conscious and unconscious) perception and thinking about the social world (p. 2).

Because personal theories are both subjective interpretations and individually construed explanations, they have the potential for being incorrect or inaccurate and thus yielding false or skewed conclusions. Furthermore, these theories change and evolve as cognitive development progresses and new information is learned (Ormrod, 2004). An example of an accurate personal theory would be the conclusion that due to the force of gravity, an object dropped out of a second story window would fall to the earth. A possible misconception or mistaken personal theory would be the conclusion that a lead ball would fall faster than a rubber ball because of its weight. Common myths and misconceptions acquired through rumor, the grapevine or urban legends can also represent inaccurate personal theories. Additionally, often these false theories can form the foundation of further erroneous conclusions – i.e., false conclusions based upon false premises. However, personal theories are subject to adjustment when correct information replaces previous misconceptions.

By generalizing specific experiences, schemas, scripts and personal theories represent mental formations that assist one in dealing with the large amount of information and stimuli that bombard the senses and require cognitive processing and thoughtful decision-making each day. Working in concert, in ways not yet completely understood, these constructs give us the security and confidence to handle the novel by referencing the familiar. It is this ability to conceptualize and reason through our experience that many theorists and philosophers believe represents the uniqueness and superiority of the human animal.


Bower, G. H., Black, J. B. & Turner, T. J. (1979). Scripts in memory for text. Cognitive Psychology, 11, 177-220.

Carlson, N. R., Martin, G. N. & Buskist, W. (2004). Psychology. New York, NY: Pearson Education.

Malle, B. F. (2003). Folk Theory of mind: Conceptual foundations of social cognition, In R. R. Hassin, J. S. Uleman, & J. A. Bargh. (Eds.). The new unconscious. London: Oxford University Press.

O’Dea, J. (n.d.). Folk Theories as working definitions: A defence [sic} of their relevance to scientific inquiry. The Australian National University Web site:

Ormrod, J. E. (2004). Human learning (4th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill Prentice Hall.

Schank, R. C. & Abelson, R. P. (1977). Scripts, plans, goals and understanding. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Sternberg, R. J. (2003). Cognitive psychology, (3rd ed.). Belmont CA: Wadsworth.

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Writer and university professor researching media psych, generational studies, addiction psychology, human and animal rights, and the intersection of art and psychology.


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