What Is a Self-Schema?

How You Define Yourself

Self-schemas
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We all have ideas and beliefs about other people, but we also hold the same sort of impressions about ourselves. The term schema refers to the cognitive structures we have to describe various categories of knowledge about the world, and like many other things, we also hold schemas about ourselves. These are known as self-schemas.

What Is a Self-Schema and How Does It Work?

So how exactly do self-schemas function?

These categories of knowledge reflect how we expect ourselves to think, feel, and act in particular settings or situations. Each of these beliefs includes our overall perceptions of ourselves ('outgoing,' 'shy,' 'talkative') as well as our knowledge of past experiences in similar situations.

For example, if you have to give a speech in one of your classes, your self-schema might be that you are shy in situations where you have to speak in public. Since you have an overall belief about your personality as well as past experiences talking in public situations, you probably already have a fairly good idea of how you will feel, think, and act in this situation.

Among other things, people can hold self-schemas about:

  • Physical characteristics ('I'm pretty,' 'I'm overweight')
  • Interests ('I love sports,' 'I like art')
  • Personality traits ('I'm shy,' 'I'm friendly')
  • Behaviors ('I'm assertive,' 'I avoid conflict')

    When people are very high or extreme in a certain area, they are described as being self-schematic in that dimension.

    For example, a person who believes that they are a "people person" and not remotely timid or shy would be said to be self-schematic in that area. If a person does not hold a schema for a particular dimension, they are said to be aschematic.

    So what are a few things you should know about self-schemas?

    Self-Schemas Are Individualized

    Each person has very different self-schemas that are influenced heavily by past experiences, relationships, upbringing, society, and culture. Who we are and our self-perceptions are heavily influenced by how we are raised, how we interact with others, and the impressions and feedback we receive from societal influences.

    As you might have already noticed, most of these schemas involve bipolar dimensions: healthy versus unhealthy, loud versus quiet, mean versus kind, sporty versus geeky, active versus sedentary. People often think of them as either/or traits, but most actually exist as a continuum with each person lying somewhere in the middle of the two extremes.

    Self-Schemas Form Our Self-Concept

    All our various self-schemas combine and interact to form our self-concept. Our self-concepts tend to be highly complex, which is not surprising since we learn about and analyze ourselves probably more than anything else.

    As we go through life and gain new knowledge and experiences, we are constantly adding to or even reconfiguring our existing self-schemas and self-concepts.

    We Hold Self-Schemas About Our Future Selves

    In addition to holding self-schemas about our current selves, some experts have suggested that we also have self-schemas about our future selves. These reflect how we think we will turn out in the coming years, which might include both positive and negative ideas about our future selves.

    How Do Self-Schemas Form?

    Our initial self-schemas begin to form in early childhood based on feedback from parents and caregivers. DeLamater and Meyers (2011) suggest, "Our self-schema is produced in our social relationships. Throughout life, as we meet new people and enter new groups, our view of self is modified by the feedback we receive from others."

    Self-schemas are also shaped by the various roles we play throughout life. Our experiences as friends, sisters, brothers, parents, co-workers, and other roles influences how we think and feel about ourselves and how we act in particular situations.

    How Do Self-Schemas Influence Behavior?

    So we know that we have self-schemas about how we think, feel, and act, but how much do these ideas really influence how we behave?

    Researchers have found that if you believe you are self-schematic on a particular dimension, you are more likely to perform well in that area. In one study, participants who rated themselves as self-schematic for independence or dependence were faster at identifying words associated with those traits than people who felt they were aschematic in those areas.

    What Are Your Self-Schemas?

    One of the easiest ways to get a better idea of your own self-schemas is to answer the question "Who am I?"

    Imagine that you are only providing these answers to yourself and not to another person, and write down 15 different things that answer this question as they occur to you without spending a lot of time thinking about how logical or important they are. Once you are done, you should have a fairly good representation of some of your central self-schemas.

    Sources

    Crisp, R. J., & Turner, R. N. Essential social psychology. London: Sage Publications; 2012.

    DeLamater, J., & Myers, D. Social psychology. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Cengage Learning; 2011.

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