Social Psychology:
Mental Schema and Frameworks

By: Guari Sarda-Joshi, PhD Candidate

When exploring the field of Social Psychology, and indeed any aspect of the human mind, it is useful to examine the underlying mental processes.  The human mind receives a vast amount of information at all times, and uses a significant amount of its cognitive resources to make sense of the world. Whenever an individual meets someone, or enters a social situation, they have to review the information available around them and quickly decide on their responses. To do this afresh for each new situation would be exhausting, and probably impossible, given the complex nature of social interactions. Thus, people use Schema and Prototypes to help evaluate a person or situation and choose appropriate responses [1].

A schema is a framework concept that contains pertinent information about a situation or person that can help in interpreting events in the appropriate context [1, 2]. For example, the schema of a children’s party includes information about the nature of guests (children and a few parents), the objects that should be expected (a cake, presents, decorations), the mood (light and fun), and the expected behavior (greet the birthday child, give the present, sing a song and eat cake) among other things. The quality and the quantity of the individual’s experiences with the event of object both affect the extent of detail available in schema [2].

A Prototype is another type of framework that helps in interpreting social situations. Prototypes provide information about the typical or ideal qualities of groups or categories [1, 3]. People carry multiple prototypes in their mind, including those for mothers, fathers, teachers, criminals, movie actors and ethnic groups. The prototype contains information about possible behaviors, physical characteristics, attitudes, preferences, and such other characteristics. Prototypes help in evaluating how closely someone resembles the expected characteristics of the different categories that they are assigned to. Thus, it becomes possible to predict and interpret their behaviors.

Types of Frameworks

People are not born with schema and prototypes, but form them as they experience events, and meet people. Schema and prototypes are formed for a number of different stimuli.

  • Persons – A person schema holds information about the physical characteristics, ethnic background, typical behaviors, attitudes, and the way others perceive and interact with them [1, 2]. This information is then used to predict the kind of things that the person is interested in, the way that person would respond to different situations, and such other information. For example, the schema of Professor Xavier from the X-Men movies and comics includes physical characteristics of being older, bald and in a wheelchair; mental characteristics of being highly intelligent, able to read and plant thoughts, being an impeccable gentleman, and of being kind and caring. Any depiction of this character would have to include all these elements, regardless of the particular context in which he is cast.
  • Roles – Role schemas demonstrate how all individuals who fill a particular role are expected to act. This is expected regardless of their personal characteristics and differences [1]. For example, if a shy and a gregarious person are both professors, they are both expected to conduct classes, explain concepts, take questions, prepare and grade exams and provide direction to those who ask it. Neither of them is expected to cook in class (unless it is a cooking class), or eat their meals there – behaviors that would be considered inappropriate and incongruous by the majority of their students.
  • Events – Situation based schemas are also called Scripts, since they describe the expected elements and sequence of the event [1, 2]. People construct event schemas of a wide variety of events ranging from the commonplace ‘visit to a supermarket’ or ‘dining at a restaurant’ to the more unique ‘meeting the partner’s parents’. These scripts tell an individual what to expect in a situation and help decide what their response to any event should be [3].

Using schema

Once a schema or prototype is formed, it provides cues as to what should be expected, what is not expected, and how one should respond in any given situation. Thus, they are used by different cognitive processes when responding to social stimuli. These frameworks particularly help in filtering information at different stages of gaining and using it [4]. First of all, they affect the process of Attending to new information. People pay the most attention to new stimuli, and less to expected ones [3]. A framework can tell us what to expect, and information that is congruent to this framework gets processed rapidly and without the individual having to consciously attend to it. On the other hand, incongruent information demands attention as it needs to be processed independently of the schema, and then assimilated [2]. So, when we have a normal trip to the local restaurant, we pay little attention to it. But if a brawl occurs while we are there, we are more likely to pay attention to the participants of the scene.

During the process of encoding information (making sense of it and storing it in memory), schemas help again. Information that is consistent to the schema is encoded better, and is added to the framework that exists, while information that is incongruent is processed and stored as a unique event [1, 2]. For example, an individual who travels by bus every day registers the relevant information (the arrival of the correct bus, buying the ticket, identifying one’s stop and getting off) without noticing it. But if on a particular day, someone boards the bus and distributes flowers to everyone, they are more likely to remember this journey as compared to any other day.

Finally, when a schema is activated during retrieval, information that is congruent to the schema is more likely to be accessed; while incongruent information is more easily retrieved when unique events are to be recalled [1, 3]. In context to the bus ride, if that individual is asked to describe a bus ride, they would recall and report script – congruent information. But if they were asked to describe an eventful bus ride; they would probably recall the day someone distributed flowers on the bus.


[1] Baron, Robert A. “Social Cognition”. In Social Psychology, (12th ed.). Mumbai: Pearson Education, 2009. Pp. 36 – 71.

[2] DeLamater, John D. & Myers, Daniel J. “Social Perception and Cognition”. In Social Psychology (7th ed.). Belmont: Cengage Learning, 2011. Pp. 115 – 143.

[3] Baumeister, Roy F. & Bushman . “Social Cognition”. In Social Psychology & Human Nature (2nd ed.). Belmont: Cengage Learning, 2011, pp. 125 – 158.

[4] Kassin, Saul M., Fein, Steven & Markus, Hazel Rose. “The Social Self” In Social psychology (8th ed.). Belmont: Cengage Learning, 2010. Pp. 55 – 100.