A self-schema is a memory structure that, like other schemas, guides how people attend to, interpret, encode, and retrieve information. However, unlike other schemas, it develops when the person uses self-awareness and self-reflection to make sense of his or her experiences and identity. Although it is grounded in the self, it can also influence the processing of information not obviously connected to the self.
When there are numerous enduring connections in memory organized around a particular concept, that set of associations forms a schema (plural schemas or schemata). A schema is a cognitive structure that integrates learned information about a particular concept, and it is activated whenever new information relevant to that concept is encountered (Alba and Hasher 1983). Once activated, schemas facilitate information processing in a top-down manner, which means new information is understood in light of what the person already believes to be true. Put another way, a schema provides a framework for understanding stimuli relevant to a particular concept. It guides how the meaning of that information is encoded by assimilating it to the content of the schema (Alba and Hasher 1983).
Self-schemas are schemas constructed through attempts to explain and organize one’s own behavior and past experiences, and they guide information processing relevant to the self (Markus 1977). Within human memory, self-relevant information exists in what is arguably the most elaborate and extensive network of associations (McConnell et al. 2013). Self-relevant information receives privileged attention and is processed in greater depth, creating the possibility of having many self-schemas (McConnell et al. 2013).
Self-Schemas as Cognitive Structures
Judgment, memory, and behavior are influenced by the concepts currently available in memory (Smith 1996). The availability, or accessibility, of information in the mind changes from moment to moment, and both internal thoughts and external encounters (e.g., any incoming sensory information, such as conversations or images) can increase the accessibility of related material in memory via spreading activation (Smith 1996). However, not all concepts have the same likelihood of activation in all individuals. The same stimulus may prime different associations in different people as a result of each person’s unique collection of memories (Bargh 1982). In addition, concepts that an individual repeatedly encounters over time will develop a high level of accessibility at baseline, also known as chronic accessibility (Smith 1996).
Theoretically, any information has the potential to become chronically accessible as long as it receives sufficient repeated activation. Practically, however, people most frequently encounter, think about, and retrieve information relevant to themselves. As such, self-relevance is often used to operationally define chronic accessibility, and self-schemas can be considered chronically accessible knowledge structures that are meaningful to one’s identity (McConnell et al. 2013). The particular self-schemas a person has habitually guide their attention, memory, and retrieval in the same way as recently primed concepts.
For example, Markus (1977) found that participants for whom “independence” or “dependence” were schematic, compared to people who were not schematic on those constructs (aschematics), processed information relevant to that self-schema more quickly. There were two criteria for categorizing participants as schematic: They must have (1) given themselves an extreme rating when asked if they possessed traits like independent vs. dependent and leader vs. follower and (2) rated those same traits as personally important. Later, all participants used a computer to indicate as quickly as possible whether a trait adjective was descriptive of them (a “me” response) or not descriptive of them (a “not me” response). Participants who were schematic for independence or dependence had shorter response latencies for “me” and “not me” judgments for adjectives related to independence and dependence. In other words, because these participants already had a schema devoted to that concept, they could quickly judge whether they possessed related qualities.
Additional evidence for self-schemas improving information processing is seen in schematic and aschematic participants’ performance on a split-attention task. Participants shadowed (i.e., spoke aloud) words played to one ear while simultaneously hitting a button whenever a light appeared nearby (Bargh 1982). When the words they were shadowing were related to independence, schematic participants were faster to respond to the light than aschematic participants. Possessing a schema for independence enabled these participants to process related information automatically, thus leaving them with more cognitive resources for the secondary task.
Consequences of Self-Schemas
Beyond processing related information more efficiently, schemas are used to fill in the gaps when information is incomplete or ambiguous (Alba and Hasher 1983). In the case of self-schemas, individuals who are schematic for a personality trait (e.g., masculinity) are more attentive to the presence or absence of that trait in other people, which then shapes their impressions and memories of those people (Markus et al. 1985). However, because self-schemas are integrated into the person’s broader self-concept, they are ultimately constrained by the activation or utilization of other self-knowledge.
To explain, at any given moment a person may define him or herself in terms of a specific self-aspect, which could be a social identity, role, goal, etc. Self-aspects can differ from one another, and it is possible that only some self-aspects will be connected to a self-schema. For example, an “independence” self-schema might be connected to the person’s self-aspects involving work, family, and friends but not to that person’s marriage self-aspect. Self-schemas only influence information processing and social perception when they are related to the individual’s current self-aspect (Brown and McConnell 2009).
Self-schemas have also received considerable attention for their role in attitudes, decisions, and performance (e.g., Wheeler et al. 2005). Persuasive appeals that match a person’s self-schema, such as having people with a “healthy eater” self-schema list specific actions they can do to eat healthier, are more effective at changing behavior (Kendzierski et al. 2015). People can also possess conflicting self-schemas that can be utilized to increase the person’s fit with their current environment or task. This is evident in African Americans’ ability to switch between a “independence” self-schema derived from mainstream American culture and an “interdependence” self-schema connected to African American culture (Brannon et al. 2015). Educational institutions in the USA usually activate African American college students’ independence self-schema, but providing opportunities to activate and use their interdependence self-schema increases feelings of fit and social inclusion, which then improves academic performance (Brannon et al. 2015).
Self-schemas are cognitive structures built from experience and self-reflection. They guide information processing at all stages, spanning attention, encoding, interpretation, and retrieval. Because they exist within the broader associative network of the self, their activation is influenced by the person’s currently accessible self-knowledge (e.g., active self-aspect). Matching an environment or persuasive appeal to a person’s self-schemas can influence decisions and performance.
- Brannon, T. N., Markus, H. R., & Taylor, V. J. (2015). “Two souls, two thoughts,” two self-schemas: Double consciousness can have positive academic consequences for African Americans. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 108, 586–609. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0038992.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
- Kendzierski, D., Ritter, R. L., Stump, T. K., & Anglin, C. L. (2015). The effectiveness of an implementation intentions intervention for fruit and vegetable consumption as moderated by self-schema status. Appetite, 95, 228–238. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.appet.2015.07.007.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
- McConnell, A. R., Brown, C. M., & Shoda, T. M. (2013). The social cognition of the self. In D. E. Carlston (Ed.), The Oxford handbook of social cognition (pp. 497–516). Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar