The concept of cognitive schema is one of the most important of those used in psychology today, regardless of whether it is in intervention and therapy or in research. Thanks to it, it is possible to create theories about different behavior patterns, biases and prejudices, and types of beliefs that define each person.

In a way, each of us has our own system of cognitive schemas , and these are expressed through what we say and do. They are part of our identity and of the way in which we have become accustomed to “reading” reality.

In this article we will see what exactly is that of cognitive schemes and how they affect us in our way of thinking, whether consciously or unconsciously.

What are cognitive schemes?

Part of our identity is based on the way we mentally organize all those concepts, beliefs and learning that we use to live day to day. In fact, if the human mind is so complex and fascinating it is among other things because it can find an almost infinite amount of ways to generate interpretations about reality , having each of them a relative internal coherence.

However, it is difficult for the same person to maintain many different patterns of behaviour at the same time. In practice, in fact, this would indicate that there is no one style of behavior, but that what defines the actions of that individual is purely and simply chaos, unpredictability. Reality, on the other hand, tells us that our way of being follows relatively stable guidelines . Whoever avoids talking to strangers is very likely not to go overnight to seek to be the center of attention, for example.

Our way of interpreting the world, our identity and social relations is not random and in constant change, but follows certain patterns that give it stability over time and in the different contexts through which we pass.

Now… what’s behind these “rails” that seem to guide our behavior? Part of that “psychological structure” that gives stability to what we do is derived precisely from what we think .

We do not normally act in a way that goes against our beliefs, unless we are forced to. And the cognitive schemes are precisely the designs of that circuit through which our thoughts and opinions usually go.

Moving from one concept to another: a system of thought

In short, cognitive schemas are systems of relationships between concepts that make it more likely to move from certain ideas to others. For example, if for us the concept of consuming animal meat is related to the concept of “the bad”, it is difficult for us to think of the concept of “art” when watching a bullfighting show.

Another example would be someone who believes fervently in the Christian god. For this person, it is easy to see the hand of an engineer behind the design of the elements he finds in nature. Therefore, the concept “nature” will be related to a concept that defines only a part of what exists, and not everything, so he will believe that there is something beyond matter: divinity.

For an atheist, on the other hand, it is much more likely that the concept of “nature” has an equivalence relationship with the concept of “what exists”, since for him there is nothing but matter in motion.

Finally, someone who has very low self-esteem , will probably have trouble combining his or her self-concept with the idea of “success”. That’s why he will learn a style of attribution by which he will interpret his achievements as being simply a matter of luck, something that could have happened to anyone. On the other hand, you will also be more likely to interpret misfortunes that happen to you as if they were your fault, leading to cases where you take responsibility for assaults and attacks by others; this is something you see a lot in victims of abuse.

Thus, the cognitive schemes make pass from concept A to B more easily than from A to G , and in this way “networks” of strongly interconnected concepts are generated that maintain a certain coherence.

Cognitive dissonance

The fact that we live interpreting things through cognitive schemes has positive aspects, but there are also negative ones. For example, these psychological schemes give our mental processes a certain rigidity . This, in the best of cases, may lead to a certain difficulty in understanding other people’s perspective, or, possibly, in carrying out creative tasks (research on creativity is complicated); and in the worst of cases, it leads to dogmatism.

However, there is another phenomenon that is also a consequence of the solidity of cognitive schemes: cognitive dissonance, a phenomenon by which we feel uneasy about holding two ideas that are contradictory to each other .

These are pros and cons that must be managed, since it is not possible to dispense with cognitive schemes. What we can do is try to make them more useful than problematic. In fact, cognitive therapy, based on Aron Beck’s ideas, is based on that principle: modify beliefs to make them serve us, not us them.