Schemas and Memory Reliability

By Ashley Hinson

The Schema Theory

The main idea of schema theory is that new encounters within the world are rarely ever completely new. A schema is a cognitive structure that provides organization for information about the world, events, people and actions. Some terms that schemas can refer to are: scripts which provide information about the sequence of events in a particular context, self-schemas which organize information we have about ourselves and social schemas which represent information about groups of people. Schemas also perform many related functions:
  • Theorize information in memory
  • Can be activated to increase information-processing efficiency
  • Regulate behavior
  • Relatively stable and very resistant to change which ensures consistency in the ways we process information and the ways we act

Schemas can also lead to mistakes wen settings are unfamiliar or when wrong schemas become activated.

Bartlett Study (1932)

Bartlett had his English participants read the story The War of the Ghosts. The first participant would read the story then rewrite it on paper. The second participant would read the first participants reproduction of the story then write his own reproduction and it went on until there were six or seven reproductions of the story. When he read the reproductions of the story in order, he noticed that the story became shorter, that some people left out some of the details and othere even made the story more understandable from the participants' experiences ad cultural background. He chose a story that was unfamiliar to the participants in order to show that their brain could create schemas based on their previous knowledge about certain things and connect them to others. His study supports the schema theory because it proves that we are able to remember things based on the connections we make with them.

Loftus and Palmer Study (1974)

Participants were made to watch seven video clips of car crashes and then had to answer a series of questions. The most critical quest was, "What was the speed of the cars in the accident?" The speed estimates were found to be influenced by word usage.

  • Contacted- 31.8 mph
  • Hit- 34 mph
  • Bumped- 38.1 mph
  • Collided- 39.3
  • Smashed- 39.3 mph

These verbs activated different schemas which influenced the speed estimates, so the accident was reconstructed in the mind of the participant in ways that reflect schematic influences. Loftus and Palmer conducted another study where they had three differnet conditions. Two of the groups were asked the speed of the car using the verbs smashed or hit. A week later, they were asked if they saw any glass after the accident. 32% of the participants who were asked about the speed of the car using the verb smashed said they had seen glass, compared to the 14% of the participants in the hit group. Smashed seems to have triggered a stronger expectation of glass. 12% of the participants in the control group said they had seen broken glass as well. There was never any broken glass during any of the video clips.

This study proves that our memory isn't as reliable as we think. Our brain tends to make schemas when we learn new things, based on old things and the things we can't make connections to, our brain tends to forget. It's all about making conections.

Riniolo (2003)

The aim of this study was to investigate the reliability of memory for eyewitnesses to remember the sinking of the Titanic. It was believed that the ship went down in one piece. The researchers used factual data and found transcripts from twenty different people that explained what they thought the ships state was during the plunge. 75% stated the Titanic was breaking apart during the sinking of it and 25% said it was intact. The majority of the tewnty selected eyewitness testimonies in this study said that the ship broke in two before the plunge. After these hearings it was concluded that the ship was indeed intact when it sank. The myth that it was broken into two when it sank has been repeated in literature, therefore allowing anyone who reads it to possibly believe it, even if they were eyewittnesses and saw that it never really happened (Cowburn, n.d.). This supports the schema theory, specifically to the point that schemas are relatively stable and very resistant to change which ensures consistency in the ways we process information and the ways we act.

Cowburn, S. (n.d.). CLOA. Retrieved December 6, 2014, from

Cognitve Level of Analysis

All of these studies have to do with the cognitive level of analysis. The CLOA is based on how mental processes in the brain process information and it concerns the way we take in information from the outside world, how we make sense of that information and what use we make of it. The principles of the CLOA are:

  • Humans are information processors and mental processes guide our behavior

-Multi-store model (Atkinson and Shiffrin)

  • The mind can be studied scientifically

-Flashbulb memory

  • Cognitive processes are influenced by socal and cultural factors

-Bartlett study 1932 (Schema)

These principles are the main ideas that focus research on specific areas of behavior and cognition and also allow us to understand how behavior can be influenced by cognitive processes (Leung, 2012).

In all of the studies that have been discussed, they all demonstrate the second principle of the CLOA. In the bartlett study, the fact that the participants changed the words in their rendition of the story that they read based on their cultural background, demonstrates how the cognitive processes are influenced by social and cultural factors. However, in his study there were criticisms: he didn't ask his particiapants to be as accurate as possible and he didn't care about the environment in which he carried out the studies.

Leung, S. (2012). Outline principles that define the cognitive level of analysis.

Retrieved December 6, 2014, from

IB Guides. (2012). Retrieved December 6, 2014, from