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Understanding Schemas

By Eric Dean JD, MBA, MA, MA, LPC, CADC

Our perspectives are constantly being shaped by a plethora of environmental, genetic, and behavioral factors. Our perception of what we experience, has a significant impact on how we feel and behave as a result. Being exposed to a vast amount of information daily, we often use cognitive shortcuts to make assessments about situations. The mental models we use to classify and organize myriad ideas and information are called schemas. 

For example, when you hear the word “family” what do you think of? Some people may think of a mother, father, and brother while others may conjure up images of soldiers they went to war with and the strong bond between them. Both ideas are completely valid; family can certainly have a lot of different meanings and interpretations. In addition, your idea of what family means may change based on new experiences and information.

Another schema is that of a drug addict or alcoholic. I am not particularly fond of this terminology because it is stigmatizing and harsh, but it is very common to hear this language when referring to someone with a substance abuse issue. I hear people describe a drug addict or alcoholic with the following attributes: they are unemployed, male, a felon, have severe mental health issues, divorced, and 50-60 years old. While there are drug addicts and alcoholics who possess 1 or more of these characteristics, many don’t. In this case, perhaps some people’s schemas were at least partially based on how this population is unflatteringly portrayed in the media. It takes a lot less time and effort to think of a segment of people as one way rather than working to understand the nuances of the individuals who comprise the group. 

The benefits of schemas are that they make life a lot easier by saving us time and allow us to make quick judgments (whether accurate or not) about situations that require immediate action. People typically rely on schemas when they don’t have a lot of information about the situation or interaction. In other words, they use schemas to fill in the knowledge gap, so to speak. There are many downsides of schemas. I am going to show an example of one in this post. 

Take the person who is struggling with substance abuse. They have experienced negative consequences from their drinking including strained relationships and depression after long binges. They firmly believe that they do not have a drinking problem, which is one of the reasons why they haven’t reached out for help. The main reason they feel they don’t have a problem is because their schema of an alcoholic (see above) does not match their current situation. They reason that since they have a job, are married, young, and have never been arrested, they do not have a drinking problem. Indirectly, because of their schema they are deterred from seeking help. In reality, someone with a substance abuse problem does not fit specific criteria in terms of their demographics. As we say, addiction is a disease that does not discriminate in that people from all backgrounds and experiences are represented.

Making unfounded assumptions about others ignores the fact that we are all unique and nuanced. Being aware of your schemas and preconceived notions is important to gain an understanding of the source of your perceptions and emotions. By analyzing your schemas and being honest with yourself, you can identify biases in your thinking. Staying open to new ideas, opinions, perspectives, and experiences will allow you to connect with people on a deeper level and be more satisfied with your life.

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