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Cognitive Psychology - Schema Theory


A schema is a cognitive framework or concept that helps organize and interpret information. Schemas are mental structures that represent knowledge about objects, people, events, and situations. They are a mental concept rather than a construct.

To Do

  1. Create a cover page for Schema Theory in your journal. Make sure to leave room in the bottom half of the page for a contents list which you will add at the end of the unit.

  2. On the next page, write definitions for the words concept and construct and answer the question 'Why is a schema a concept rather than a construct?'.

Schemas have several functions:

  1. Organise information

  2. Guide behaviour

  3. Interpret new information

  4. Fill in knowledge gaps.

Memory Processing

Schemas are involved in all stages of memory processing.

  • Schemas can influence what we pay attention to and therefore what and how we encode that information.

  • Schemas influence how we organise and store information.

  • Schemas can influence retrieval, influencing what information we recall and how we recall it.

Schemas influence the above processes through:-

  1. Assimilation - where new information is altered to fix existing schemas (knowledge).

  2. Accommodation - where existing schemas are changed to accommodate new information.

  3. Levelling - where new information is simplified.

  4. Sharpening - where information is highlighted.

Schemas have several functions:

  • Organise information

  • Guide behaviour

  • Interpret new information

  • Fill in knowledge gaps.

Watch 'What is a Schema Theory in Psychology' by Practical Psychology.

Using the information in the video, create a journal page with the title Schema Theory Basics. Make sure you describe schema theory, its history, why it is important, how schemas work and any problems with schema theory.

To Do

Go to ibpsychmatters and read the first section down to the end of the Bradford and Johnson section. Complete any tasks and a DEAL evaluation for the study.

Key Studies

The War of the Ghosts

Frederic Bartlett, a British psychologist, conducted the "War of the Ghosts" study in 1932 to explore how memory is influenced by cultural and social factors. He was particularly interested in how prior knowledge, or schemas, affects the recall of unfamiliar information.


The primary aim of the study was to investigate the reconstructive nature of memory and how individuals' cultural backgrounds influence their recollection of a story.


  • Participants: British students.

  • Procedure: Bartlett used a Native American folktale called "War of the Ghosts," which was unfamiliar to the participants. He chose this story specifically because it contained concepts and structures that were foreign to the participants' cultural background.

  • Step 1: Participants read the story twice at their own pace.

  • Step 2: Bartlett then asked them to recall the story at various intervals: immediately after reading, and then days, weeks, months, or even years later (serial reproduction).

  • Step 3: Another group of participants read the story and then passed on their recalled version to another participant, who read it and then passed on their version (repeated reproduction).


Bartlett found several key patterns in how the participants recalled the story:

  1. Assimilation: Participants' recollections became more consistent with their own cultural expectations. Details that were unfamiliar or did not fit their cultural norms were changed to be more understandable within their own cultural context.

  • For example, "canoe" was often changed to "boat," and "hunting seals" was changed to "fishing."

  1. Leveling: The story became shorter with each retelling as participants omitted details they deemed unimportant or that were difficult to remember.

  2. Sharpening: Certain details were exaggerated or highlighted, often those that were more culturally familiar or significant to the participants.

  3. Rationalization: Participants added information or explanations to make the story more coherent and logical from their perspective. For instance, they might add context or reasons for certain events that were not present in the original story.


Bartlett concluded that memory is not a passive process of mere retrieval of information but an active process of reconstruction. This reconstruction is influenced by individuals' schemas, which are shaped by their cultural and social backgrounds. Memory, therefore, is subject to distortion as people try to fit new information into their existing schemas.


  • Cognitive Psychology: Bartlett's study laid the groundwork for understanding the reconstructive nature of memory, emphasizing the role of schemas in shaping what and how we remember.

  • Cultural Influence: The study highlighted the significant impact of cultural background on memory, suggesting that people from different cultures may recall the same event differently based on their schemas.

  • Eyewitness Testimony: The findings have important implications for the reliability of eyewitness testimony, as people's recollections can be influenced by their prior knowledge and expectations.

Watch TED-ed Are all Your Memories Real?


  • Methodological Issues: The study's informal experimental procedures and lack of standardized controls have been criticized. Bartlett's approach was more anecdotal and less rigorous by modern experimental standards.

  • Ecological Validity: Despite methodological criticisms, the use of a real story and the naturalistic approach increased the ecological validity of the findings, making them relevant to everyday memory processes.


Watch Memory as an Active Process by Psych Boost. This is a GCSE video but is a good round-up of the study and theory.

To Do

  • Go to ibpsychmatters and continue reading until you get to the end of the Barlett study.

  • Use DEAL, or a method you are comfortable with, to evaluate Bartlett's 'War of the Ghosts' study. Add this to your folder.

  • Research and write a DEAL evaluation for the Brewers and Treyens Office study. You could start by watching Schemas by CVC Psychology and reading the information on Themantic Educations site.

  • Research and write a DEAL evaluation for the Anderson and Pichert's Perspective Change Study. Try Themantic Education post.


So far you have covered:-

  • Schemas—mental representations that organize our knowledge, beliefs and expectations.

  • Schemas are derived from prior experience.

  • Schemas may be studied through the effects that they have on more observable processes, for example, memory.

  • Schemas influence memory at all stages:

    • encoding - Anderson and Pichert (1978)

    • storage - Bradford and Johnson (1972)

    • retrieval - Anderson and Pichert (1978), Brewer and Treyens (1981)

You should have DEAL evaluations for the four studies listed above. These are important to keep safe in your folder as they will be very useful when it comes to revision.

Application and Recall

  • Go and find one real-life case where eye-witness testimony was influenced by schema. Create a presentation explaining the case and how schema influenced memory.

  • Complete the multiple-choice quiz. Quickly write your answers down do not just say them in your head, writing down is more active and you will pay more attention to the questions you get wrong which means you are more likely to remember the correct answer in the future.

Exam Practice

Short Answer Questions

  1. Explain schema theory.

  2. Describe how one study relates to schema theory.

Essay Question

Evaluate schema theory.

Below are examples of how you might have answered these questions. Take a look at them and compare them to your answer. The format of how you write your answers may be different, we all write differently as it is a creative endeavor, but the content should align well. Your school/tutor/parent may have given you structures or rules to follow when answering the questions such as not using bullet points, sticking with what you are comfortable with is the best way to approach answering questions.

If you found it difficult to recall the information, try doing a bit more research into schema theory. If you found it hard getting the information from your head onto the page try recording your answer verbally and listening to it before you start writing. If structuring your answer was tricky look at our resources on the main psychology page aimed at helping you structure answers.

Schema Theory -
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