With regard to personality, the cognitive perspective focuses on organised mental structures of experience,
including memory, schemas, scripts, and attributions.
We are surrounded by a mass information, therefore in order to survive
and be efficient in progressing towards our goals, we must have ways of
sorting through and selectively attending to the mass of information.
By using stored "information guides", we can simplify and structure the
world of information. These "guides" are sometimes called
heuristics, models, algorithims, schemas and scripts. Whilst
technically these may be different terms, for our purposes they are
important because they are all "tools" for filtering and interpretation
information. By the way, information is meant here in a broad
sense - information that arrives externally through each of the senses
on an almost constant basis, but also information that may arise from
within, from the unconscious, or memory, or newly created
You may not be aware of it, but you are surrounded by more information than you can use – you
can’t deal with it all, so you impose organisation and use just a few
bits and you make inferences about the rest. In this way, cognitive
organisation is good because it saves mental resources and allows us to
understand events using selected pieces of information.
But cognitive organisation can also be bad in unusual situations and
when we get stuck in negative perceptions (e.g., depressive
self-schemas) or when there are novel events.
Because of all this information coming in and the need to simplify
things we tend to treat a piece of information as a member of a category
and we can then respond immediately in a way established for other
members of this category. We do not treat each tree (whether an
individual ash or elm, or prunus) as a completely unique category, but
rather identify it as a member of the category “TREE” and we can then
Similarly, when we meet people and we tend to treat them
as members of a category rather than as a totally unique creature that
we’ve never come across before. The category may be race, gender,
religion, nationality, dress style, whatever. In cognitive psychology
these categories are called schemas. A schema is a knowledge structure
or a cognitive structure that organises information and thereby
influences how we perceive and respond to further information about
objects, people and events. In other words, we impose order on
experiences derived from recurrences of similar qualities across
A helpful formulaic representation is
Perception = memory (i.e., stored guides) + incoming information
If I say “VEHICLE” do you know what I’m referring to? You probably have
a generalised idea of a motorised contraption that goes on the road and
has 4 wheels. But you’d need more information to know exactly what I’m
referring to. So you know for example that your “vehicle” schema is say
different from your “plant” schema or your “person” schema or your
“clothing” schema but you don’t necessarily know what subcategory of the
schema I’m referring to.
It is generally agreed that for physical objects we arrange the schemas
hierarchically. Now you have a schema for vehicle for example, and you
probably also have a schema for “car” and one for “sports car’ and so
these can exist at different levels.
Younger children for example tend to use middle level schemas more
frequently. Higher level categories like “vehicle” are distinctive but
more abstract and not as specific as the next category level. Low level
categories are specific but may not always be cognitively economical to
EXEMPLARS: Schemas are usually assumed to include information about
specific cases or exemplars as well as information about the more
generic sense of what the category is. That is for any given category,
say, vehicle, you can bring to mind specific examples of vehicles and
you can bring to mind a general sense of the category on the whole e.g.
a “typical” vehicle (something that is a motorised contraption on the
road and has 4 wheels).
PROTOTYPES: Some researchers believe that some members of a category are
the “best members” that is they best exemplify the category. For example
a Porsche might best exemplify the category of sports car for you and a
Maserati might best exemplify the category for me. This is called a
prototype. Some theories suggest that it is the best actual member you
have found so far and others that it’s an idealised member, an average
of the members you’ve found so far.
ATTRIBUTES: On the other hand some researchers say that no prototypes
are stored at all. Instead the category or schema is simply a collection
of attributes or elements that help define what the category is. In the
case of a sports car those attributes may be sleek, low, racy looking,
expensive looking etc.
It has also been suggested that many categories don’t have explicit
definitions. The features of a category or schema all contribute to its
nature but aren’t necessary for category membership. For example your
schema for birds probably includes the idea that birds fly. But there
are birds that DON’T fly. So flying can’t actually be a defining feature
if birds. But hearing that a creature flies does make it more likely
that it will fit the bird schema than say the cow schema. So flying
counts for something!
FUZZY SET: As with our bird example, some schemas are defined in a fuzzy
way by a set of criteria that are IMPORTANT but not necessary. e.g.
DEFAULT INFORMATION: Many events don’t contain complete information
about what’s going on. If there’s enough information available to bring
up a schema then you get additional information from memory. e.g. if I
told you I did the washing this morning, you would assume I was talking
about clothes, that I used washing powder, that I used a washing
machine, etc. even though none of these thins was mentioned. Research
shows that people may even REMEMBER things that they haven’t explicitly
been told if it fits their schema of the event. (you may think I
mentioned the washing powder even though I didn’t). You would probably
not assume that I was talking about washing the dog by hand using
biocarbonate of soda. Information you assume to be true (unless you’ve
been told otherwise) is called default information.
STEREOTYPES: When one aspect of a stereotype is brought to mind you tend
to assume other aspects as well. If you hear that a person is a Liberal
Voter you may also assume that they love John Howard, are conservative
in thinking and dress style, are generally warmongering and anti
refugees (if that’s what your “Liberal Voter” schema is). People
automatically assume schema-consistent information even when it it’s not
available. So default information is brought from memory to fill in the
Role of Schemas
Any event is a collection of elements: people, movements, objects etc.
These various elements might just as well be random unless you have some
sense of what the event is ABOUT. In the same way the attributes of an
object are just a collection of bits unless you have an overriding sense
of what he object IS. The schema is the glue that holds all the bits of
Schemas: are used to recognize new experiences (new events are
identified by comparing them to existing schemas). They affect
perception, affect encoding, affect memory recall and become
self-perpetuating. You are more likely to remember information that
CONFIRMS your expectations than doesn’t.
Hazel Rose Markus in 1977 suggested that the self is a concept or a
category like any other concept or category and that people form
cognitive structures about the self just as they do about other
phenomena. These cognitive structures are called SELF-schemas.
Self-schemas are cognitive generalisations about oneself, derived from
past experience. The meaning is similar to the meaning of the term
self-concept. Our self-schemas organise and guide the processing of
self-related information. Self-schemas, like other schemas influence
whether information is attended to and how easily it is recalled. Thus
it is easier to encode things that fit into it and to remember things
that fit into it.
Once we have developed a schema about ourselves there is a strong
tendency for that schema to be maintained by a bias in what we attend
to, a bias in what we remember, and a bias in what we are prepared to
accept as true about ourselves. In other words our self-schema becomes
Self-schemas tend to be larger and more complex than other schemas and
there are individual differences in the complexity of self-schemas.
“Some people have many different self-aspects, which they keep distinct
from each other. Each role these people play in life, each goal they
have, each activity they engage in, has its own separate existence in
their self-image. These people are high in self-complexity. Other
people’s self-aspects are less distinct from each other. These people
are lower in self-complexity.
For people who are low in self-complexity, feelings relating to a bad
event in one aspect of life tend to spill over into other aspects of the
sense of self (Linville, 1987). This spill over doesn’t happen as much
for people high in self-complexity because the separations and
boundaries they’ve developed between self-aspects prevents it.
The way people acquire (or fail to acquire) complexity in the
self-schema may be partly a matter of how much you think about yourself.
Nasby (1985) found that people who report spending a lot of time
thinking about themselves have self-schemas of greater complexity and
detail than people who think about themselves less. Apparently the very
process of thinking about yourself causes a continued growth and
articulation of the self-schema.” Carver & Scheier (2000, p. 445)
“Another way of thinking about self-complexity is that it involves a
family of self-schemas, rather than a single one. In a way, you’re a
different person when you’re in different contexts because you make
different assumptions about yourself, and you attend to different
aspects of what’s going on. When you’re with one set of friends at a
party to another set in a study group to being at home with your
parents, it’s as though you’re putting aside one schema about yourself
and taking up a new one.
Not only may people have distinct self-schemas in different contexts,
but self-schemas may vary in another way. Markus and her colleagues
(e.g., Markus & Nurius, 1986), suggest that people develop images of
selves they’d like to become, selves they’re afraid of becoming and
selves they expect to become. Other selves that have been suggested
include the disliked self (Oglivie, 1987) and selves you think you ought
to be (Higgins, 1987, 1990). These various possible selves can be used
as motivators, because they provide goals to approach or to avoid.” Carver
(2000, p. 446).
Examples of self-schemas
Because the self=schema contains our ideas about what we are like and
what we are capable of doing it affects what we do.
- If we think we’re reliable we’ll try to always live up to that image.
- If we think we are sociable we are more likely to seek the company of
- If we think we’re attractive we’ll be more confident in our romantic
dealings with the opposite sex.
- If we think we’re shy we are more likely to avoid social situations.
We have an elaborate schema based on the way we’ve behaved awkwardly in
social situations in the past and we’ll therefore interpret new
situations in the light of this knowledge. We become an expert in
shyness. We then become more ready to see our social experiences in the
light of our social deficiencies. This becomes a lens through which we
view the world.