Schemas are standardized and simplified mental constructs and beliefs pertaining to various scenarios in the world that are based on previous knowledge and experiences. Schemas are the mental structures we use to organize our knowledge of the world and they are very critical in navigating everyday life. Imagine if every time we are faced with a new situation, we had to interpret the situation from the scratch with no prior knowledge. This would be incredibly inefficient, tedious and exhausting. Schemas helps us interpret new situations based on our previous knowledge and experiences which allows us to understand the situation quickly and accurately. For instance, when we go shopping to a new supermarket, we might have a schema on how to pay for the goods. We could expect that all supermarkets will accept credit cards thus, we might not have brought along cash. Also, if we see someone dressed in gym clothes, we could assume that the person is about to work out or has just worked out.
John Bransford and Marcia Johnson (1972) conducted a few experiments which highlighted the role of schemas in understanding and recalling information. In one of the experiments the passage below was read to the participants after which they were asked to recall it as accurately as they could. However a title was given to a half of the participants while the others were given the passage without a title. Below is the passage.
“The procedure is actually quite simple. First you arrange things into different groups… Of course, one pile may be sufficient depending on how much there is to do. If you have to go somewhere else due to lack of facilities that is the next step, otherwise you are pretty well set. It is important not to overdo any particular endeavor. That is, it is better to do too few things at once than too many. In the short run this may not seem important, but complications from doing too many can easily arise. A mistake can be expensive as well… At first the whole procedure will seem complicated. Soon, however, it will become just another facet of life. It is difficult to foresee any end to the necessity for this task in the immediate future, but then one never can tell. After the procedure is completed one arranges the materials into different groups again. Then they can be put into their appropriate places. Eventually they will be used once more and the whole cycle will have to be repeated. However, that is part of life.”
[Bransford and Johnson 1972 pp. 722]
The people without a title reported that they were unable to understand the passage let alone try to accurately recall the details. However, those that read the passage with the title, ‘Washing Clothes’ in mind, reported that they understood and were able to at least vaguely recall some details. The title provides a schema so that the information can be appropriately stored and more easily recalled.
Schemas and Prejudice
The invariably simplified nature of schemas though very often accurate, could lead to misconceptions and mischaracterizations which could have very negative effects on the society. Thus, it is very easy to deduce that prejudicial behaviors and stereotyping is deeply rooted in the constant use of schemas to navigate everyday life.
In an interesting study, A few of researchers presented children with a couple of images that were either consistent with gender stereotypes such as a man working on an automobile and a woman washing dishes, while others were shown images that were inconsistent with gender stereotypes such as a man washing dishes and a woman fixing an automobile.
When later asked to recall what they saw in the images, the children who saw the stereotypical images recalled accurately however, some of the kids who saw the non-stereotypical image changed the gender of the people they saw to fit their stereotypes. For example, if they saw an image of a woman fixing an automobile, they were more likely to remember it as an image of a man fixing an automobile.
In the world today, one of the most impactful force that shapes our perception is the media. The Media portrayal of certain groups, communities, experiences, ideologies, ideas, value perspectives etc. has a profound effect in forming our schemas with regards to each concept. For instance, if we always saw in the news that terrorists appeared to be brown middle-eastern men with beards, this subconsciously forms a stereotype and induces prejudicial behavior against people of that description. This highlights the significance of representation in the society.
When we have schemas about people, it affects the way we act towards them which in turn affects how they respond to us hence the concept of self-fulfilling prophecy.
Schemas and Self-fulfilling Prophecy
Self-Fulfilling Prophecy is a process whereby one’s expectations about one’s self or another person eventually induces a behavior from one’s self or the other person that confirms these expectations. For example, a coach could expect that a rookie player is uncoordinated and inconsistent thus does not play him/her. When he/she eventually plays, he/she is rusty, unprepared and lacks confidence thus, performs poorly as expected.
A classic experiment conducted by Rosenthal and Jacobsen in the 1960s illustrated the self-fulfilling prophecy concept. Findings from this experiment provided evidence that teachers’ expectations of students influenced the student’s performance, significantly over any inherent differences in ability.
The researchers carried out their experiment in a public elementary school, where they randomly selected a group of children and told the teachers that these students took the Harvard Test of Inflected Acquisition and were considered “growth spurters.” They explained that these students had lots of potential and were likely to experience a great deal of intellectual growth within the following year.
Performance data was gathered on all students. The “ordinary” students’ grades were compared to the grades of the “growth spurters”. It was found that those students the teachers expected to do well (that were randomly selected) actually showed greater improvements than their colleagues.
Since the students were not informed of their false Test of Inflected Acquisition results, the only explanation for these results is that the teachers’ expectations have a profound influence on the students’ performances.
The concept of the self-fulfilling prophecy factors in some of the issues in the society today. In the United States, there seem to be a tumultuous relationship between Law enforcement agencies and people of color, particularly the African American community. Though not in all cases, it is plausible that in some cases, an officer may have a schema about an African American to be uncooperative and confrontational thus the officer engages impolitely or aggressively which then induces a confrontational or uncooperative behavior from the individual.
Recommendation and Conclusion: Diversity, Inclusion and Representation
Our inevitable use of schemas as our daily driver tends to suggest that humans are by nature prejudicial and thus, are doomed to disharmony. However, this is not the case. As we have come to understand, schemas are not inherent. They are formed by our interaction with the environment and thus, can be conditioned. In order to minimize prejudice, discrimination, stereotyping and negative self-fulfilling prophecies, it is paramount that we recondition our schemas. Hence, the significance of diversity, inclusion and representation.
A diverse society that champions inclusion, desegregation and representation is likely to minimize prejudice and achieve harmony in the long run. When people interact in a diverse, desegregated and inclusive society, they come to understand the individuality of humans. For example, in race relations, an individual from a particular race in a diverse and inclusive community will interact with people of a different race who have varying personalities and as a result, is less likely to be prejudicial.
Media representation will also have to play a great role in minimizing stereotypes and affirming positive self-fulfilling prophecies. The media will have to take an inclusive approach. Hollywood has recently recognized the significance of inclusion and representation and has taken steps to implement this approach. A great example of this is the marvel movie ‘The Black Panther’. The Black Panther depicts a black African Super Hero who is king of a technologically advanced nation in Africa. Though fictional, this kind of representation could help induce a positive self-fulfilling prophecy in Blacks of different age groups not just in Africa but all around the world. Similarly with regards to women, the DC movie, ‘Wonder Woman’ inspires women across the entire globe.
In the case of law enforcement agencies and their relationship with minority communities in the US, It is paramount to train officer to eliminate unconscious biases. Also, it is very important that these agencies be diverse in order to further minimize prejudice.
In conclusion, John F. Kennedy once said, “there is no problem man creates that man cannot solve”. Prejudice and discrimination is not inherent in humans. Schemas can be conditioned. If we can be conditioned to hate or discriminate, we can also be conditioned to tolerate, embrace and love.