Schemas are defined as large-scale cognitive structures representing general knowledge, often also described as subjective theories, about some object or concept (Smith 1998). Their main functions include aiding in the interpretation of external stimuli, directing attention to specific types of external information, and guiding the retrieval and judgment of information from memory. That is, schemas play a central role in information processing and how persons understand and act in their social worlds. It follows that relational schemas organize knowledge of relationships in long-term memory and play an important role in the cognitive processes that precede, accompany, and follow interpersonal communication.
Specifically, relational schemas can be defined as interrelated pieces of declarative and procedural knowledge about relationships that resides in long-term memory (Baldwin 1992). In this context, declarative knowledge is defined as descriptive knowledge of the attributes and features of things, whereas procedural knowledge refers to a person’s knowledge of if-then contingencies. The declarative and procedural knowledge contained in relational schemas overlaps with three subsets of knowledge that are often considered to be independent and to constitute their own schemas: self-, other-, and relationship schemas. Self-schemas organize knowledge about the self, including knowledge of thoughts and emotions, goals and plans for the future, and memory of past experiences. Other schemas represent knowledge about others with whom one has relationships. Knowledge of others mirrors knowledge of self in that it includes representations of others’ thoughts and emotions, goals and plans for the future, and past experiences. The main difference is that, depending on how well one knows the other, these representations are much more limited than those of self.
Finally, relationship-schemas contain memories of past and expectations of future interactions with others. They include knowledge of experienced and expected behavioral sequences between self and other that is used to interpret and to plan behavior. These interaction sequences can be very specific and rigid interpersonal scripts (Abelson 1981) for routine behaviors, such as greeting someone, or more abstract and flexible memory organization packets (MOP) (Kellermann 1995) and plans (Berger 2002) for reaching goals in novel interactions. Although these three sub-schemas are often conceptualized as being isolated from each other, Baldwin (1992) demonstrated that these three subsets of knowledge are so highly interdependent on one another (i.e., any change in one will effect changes in the others) that they actually all belong to the same, highly abstract cognitive schema.
Like other schemas, relational schemas are hierarchically organized and exist at least at three levels of generality (Koerner & Fitzpatrick 2002). At the most general level is knowledge that applies to all social relationships, the general social schema. Such general social knowledge includes beliefs and pragmatic rules that apply to all interactions, like the norm of reciprocity or the need to be truthful and relevant when communicating. On the second level are relationship-type schemas that include knowledge specific to the different types of relationships one has, such as romantic partner, co-worker, sibling, and best friend. The knowledge stored in schemas at this level is different from the knowledge in the general social schema and applies to all relationships of that type (Fletcher 1993). On the most specific level are relationship-specific schemas that contain knowledge that applies to only one particular relationship a person has with one specific other person. These schemas contain memories, attributions, and experiences made within the context of that particular relationship and allow individuals to adapt their thoughts, behaviors, and interpretations to that particular relationship. These particular relationship beliefs are what make each relationship unique and distinguishable from other relationships.
The knowledge contained at the level of more specific schemas is different from the knowledge that exists at more general levels, and a person’s complete mental representation of a relationship combines knowledge from all three levels. Thus, similarities of mental representations of relationships with different persons are the result of shared knowledge drawn from either the general social schema or the relationship-type schema. By contrast, differences in mental representations of relationships with different persons are due to unique information contained either in relationship-type or in relationship-specific schemas. Consequently, there must be a process that determines which information is retrieved and used in relational information processing. Originally, Koerner and Fitzpatrick (2002) proposed a sequential process in which relationship-specific knowledge is accessed first and general social knowledge last, which would explain why more specific knowledge has supremacy over more general knowledge in information processing. An equally plausible alternative that is more consistent with parallel processing is a recursive or iterative process that accesses knowledge at all levels of specificity simultaneously and that assigns more specific knowledge primacy over more general knowledge if there is a conflict between knowledge at the different levels of abstraction. A similar process should be involved when storing relationship experiences in memory. Truly unique experiences are stored in relationship-specific schemas, whereas experiences that are made with several others are stored in relationship-type schemas or the general social schema.
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