By Gordon Rugg
Why should anyone care about schema theory? Well, among other things, it’s at the heart of how society functions, and if you make good use of it, you can become rich, famous and socially successful. That’s a persuasive pair of reasons. This article describes the core concepts in schema theory, discusses some examples of how it gives powerful insights, and relates it to various concepts that complement it.
First, some background. Schema theory was introduced in the 1930s by Sir Fred Bartlett. It’s pronounced like “schemer” which is a frequent cause of confusion if people first encounter the term by hearing it rather than reading it. The core idea is that a schema is a sort of mental template that describes the key features of something. For instance, the schema for a typical car includes having four wheels, a chassis, a body, doors, seats and a steering wheel.
There’s a closely related approach known as script theory. Scripts in this context are a sub-type of schema that describe the key features of an activity – a verb as opposed to a noun. For instance, the script for a pre-arranged dinner at a French-style restaurant includes the actions of booking a table, arriving at the agreed time, being greeted by a member of staff, being shown to your table, etc. We’ll be covering script theory in a later article.
So far, this may sound tidy but not particularly powerful or interesting. When you dig deeper, though, schema theory and script theory turn out to have a lot of uses and implications that aren’t as widely known as they should be. These take us into fields as varied as designing game-changing new products, the law, and measuring novelty in film scripts, as well as the eternal question of why the general public appears collectively unable to have consistent, clear ideas about what it wants. First, we’ll work through the basic concepts.