Navigating through the Everyday World – A Cognitive Perspective

Dr. Donna L. Roberts

Semantic Memory, Schemas, and Scripts
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Tulving (1972) first defined semantic memory as “a mental thesaurus of organized knowledge a person possesses about words and other verbal symbols, their meanings and referents, about relations among them, and about rules, formulas and algorithms for the manipulation of these symbols, concepts and relations" (p. 386). This vast array of knowledge is organized into related categories and concepts, which help one systematically classify, code and describe objects and events encountered in the environment rather than viewing each individual item as separate and distinct. As such, these mental representations not only fine tune our organization of the world but serve to facilitate effective interaction with novel situations.

With regard to a real-world example such as purchasing concert tickets, one’s semantic memory might consist of various categories and concepts that could be accessed and referenced in carrying out this novel event - including, box-office, concert events, tickets, etc. - each of which has a set of associated attributes from which inferences can be drawn that help one more fully understand the new task. This organizational scheme of semantic memory allows individuals to associate new experiences with current knowledge that best fits the circumstances, thus providing a foundation from which to build more knowledge and understanding of the environment.

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. Schemas derived from prior experience influence the way one attends to, encodes, interprets and retrieves new information and novel environmental stimulus. Specifically, when one processes information to store in memory, it is typically fit into the existing collection of understanding (Carlson, Martin & Buskist, 2004; Ormrod, 2004). Thus, the existing structural schemas shape the interpretations and thought processes engaged 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, schemata exist for the events of purchasing various goods and services. Depending upon the variety of one’s experience, the schema for purchasing food will have both similarities and differences from the schema for purchasing tickets to a baseball game. Thus, when one embarks upon the task of purchasing tickets for a concert, the prior knowledge of these schemata (the top-down processing) is accessed, and one formulates a set of heuristic expectations about the new task.
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In this example, one would most likely assume that the act of buying tickets to a concert more closely resembles that of buying tickets for a baseball game. The schema for that task will be superimposed upon one’s experience of buying the concert tickets, acting as a set of basic guiding principles for action. While on the one hand, these mental structures help individuals makes sense of experience, put it into context, and solve new problems, they can also lead to false assumptions and blocked thinking patterns such as mental sets and functional fixedness.

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 theses researchers, scripts are comprised of several features, including: props, roles, opening conditions, scenes, and results, and represent default-like stereotypical representations of common experiences. Like schema, scripts are the guides in top-down processing. However, scripts represent a narrower and more specific set of step-by-step procedural strategies for carrying out an activity. 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.

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 confronted with the novel experience of buying concert tickets by serving as a reference set of general strategies and scenarios that have worked or been observed in similar situations – i.e., check the local newspaper, go to the sporting event box office, go to the centralized ticket agency at the mall, visit the concert hall’s website, etc. While one’s specific previous experience may not exactly mirror the new task (e.g., the ticket agency for baseball games may not be the same box office as the one for concerts) it forms the basis or starting point for problem-solving with the novel situation.

By generalizing specific experiences, semantic memory, schemas and scripts 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.
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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.

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: Thompson/Wadsworth

Tulving, E. (1972). Episodic and semantic memory. In E. Tulving & W. Donaldson (Eds.), Organization of memory. London: Academic Press.

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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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