Knowledge structures are mental representations of regularities believed to exist in social situations and people’s dispositions and behaviors. Specifically, knowledge structures are generalized characterizations of some social entity or experience. Knowledge structures are also commonly referred to as schemas. Scripts, plans, prototypes, and memory organization packets (MOPS) are among the different types of knowledge structures or schemas. If communication is conceptualized as a prediction activity, then knowledge structures serve as a database of social information on which people can base their predictions of how to interact with others. Knowledge structures are a means for people to anticipate their own interaction goals and the goals of others, interpersonal behaviors, and outcomes that are likely to occur in social interactions. The manner in which people perceive social situations is influenced by knowledge structures. People view interactions in a manner that is consistent with their pre-existing expectations. Additionally, a priori explanations of situations are based on schematically organized knowledge. For any specific social interaction, it is likely that multiple knowledge structures are activated.
Types Of Knowledge Structures
Knowledge structures or schemas organize knowledge about people, situations, and action sequences hierarchically, with abstract knowledge at the top of the hierarchies and more concrete knowledge at the bottom. For example, a person schema might include abstract personality descriptors such as “dominant” or “introverted.” Nested below these abstract elements might be concrete behaviors that are associated with the abstract element. Such concrete behaviors as “talks loudly,” “interrupts others often,” and “never stops talking” might be associated with “dominant.” These hierarchical representations are created to facilitate perception, explanation, and evaluation of experience.
Self-schemas are simplified characterizations of the self-concept. The self-concept consists of all information relevant to the self. Autobiographical information, personality traits, and social roles such as student, father, senior citizen, or male are elements that may comprise the self-concept. Self-schemas are a function of patterns imposed on the self-concept. If a summary of autobiographical memories reveals a pattern of shyness, then self as shy is a likely component of the corresponding self-schema. Scripts organize knowledge about event sequences. For example, an initial interaction script typically consists of the exchange of names and basic sociological information such as occupation. Disclosure of highly intimate information typically violates the initial interaction script that many people hold (Douglas 1994).
Person schemas are generalizations of the traits and behaviors for specific people like a college roommate or boss. Role schemas are generalizations that are held regarding sociological classifications such as race, class, occupation, and sex. Stereotypes and prejudices such as those based on race or sex fall into the category of role schemas. Relational schemas are employed to make sense of friendships as well as family, professional, and romantic relationships. Given a relational schema, for each relationship type, people have general expectations of what should occur and how the relationship should function.
Memory Organization Packets
MOPs consist of a series of conventional scenes that are expected during a culturally defined episode. Examples of such episodes are initial interactions with strangers, small talk at parties, encounters with peers at work, and first date conversation. Schank (1982) proposed the MOP construct in an effort to represent human knowledge organization in the domain of artificial intelligence. In the field of communication, Kellermann (1995) was the first to employ the notion of MOPs in her work concerning the usual phases during initial interactions. MOPs are hierarchical structures that are composed of scenes and scripts. Scenes are more general than scripts and are therefore more flexible. Scenes contain information regarding the general behavior necessary to achieve a goal.
Kellermann demonstrated that initial interactions contain scenes such as greeting, introduction, and good-byes. The scenes of greeting and good-byes, however, are not unique to the culturally defined episode of an initial interaction. In fact, these scenes are likely elements in a MOP for small talk at a party or a reunion with a former classmate. Scripts, on the other hand, detail more specific behaviors associated with goal achievement. For instance, an initial interaction can happen in several contexts, such as networking at a professional conference, a dinner party, or a job interview. Although these different initial interaction contexts have the greeting scene in common, the specific script employed during the greeting scene will differ due to the distinctive features of the interaction context.
In addition to Kellermann’s work on MOPs in initial interactions, Honeycutt and Cantrill (2001) have employed the MOP concept to explain the phases of intimate relationship growth and decay. People have cognitive expectations for the progression and decay of romantic relationships. These expectations are based on people’s MOPs for each phase of a relationship. For example, when intimacy is escalating in a budding romance, people tend to expect scenes such as self-disclosure, dating, and meeting the parents.
Knowledge Structures And Interpersonal Communication
Although multiple knowledge structures are likely to be activated in a particular social interaction with a conversational partner, there are three structures that are essential elements in the construction of generalized patterns of interaction for a specific conversational partner: self-schema, other-schema, and an interpersonal script. When people interact with a conversational partner, their perceptions, goals, and explanations of the other’s behavior are based upon a generalized view of self, generalized views of their conversational partner, and the interpersonal scripts appropriate for the partner. The other schema can be a person schema or role schema or combination of the two schema types.
An interpersonal script is an explanatory pattern based on the history of interactions with a specific conversational partner. For instance, friends who have a history of absolute honesty even in face-threatening situations will have an interpersonal script that includes frank expression of opinions. The combination of interpersonal script and self- and other-schema composes a relational schema. As relationships develop over time, a relational schema is constructed (Baldwin 1992; Planalp 1987). Just as with any knowledge structure, relational schemas impact a person’s perception of a relationship. Additionally, relational schemas influence the nature of explanations generated to comprehend events that occur in the context of the relationship.
Knowledge Structures, Perceptions, And Explanations
Schemas influence the perception and interpretation of social interactions. People see events and behaviors that are consistent with the expectations derived from their knowledge structures. Interpretation of ambiguous information can be influenced by the schema associated with the information. Trope (1986) asked study participants to interpret the expressions of human faces. All participants viewed pictures with ambiguous expressions. Participants’ interpretations of the facial expressions were based on the script that accompanied the picture. When participants were told that the person in the photograph was being threatened by a vicious dog, the expression was interpreted as fear. On the other hand, when the participants were told that the person in the photograph had just won some money, the expression was viewed as happiness. So ultimately expectations for a social interaction are based on the schemas that are activated at the time. For example, if the interpersonal schema for interactions with a co-worker is that of uncomfortable, contentious conversations, then subsequent interpersonal exchanges with that co-worker are more likely viewed as conflict laden, even if there is no apparent basis for conflict in the comments made by the co-worker.
Pre-existing knowledge structures prompted by a social situation will influence subsequent explanation of the event and the behaviors of people involved. For example, late nights at the office and an increased concern with personal appearance are associated with the “cheating spouse” schema. If a spouse is already viewed as a possible cheater, then the perception that the spouse has been “distant and uncharacteristically quiet” will be explained by the “cheating spouse” schema instead of an alternate one such as that of the “overworked and exhausted” spouse.
Anticipatory And Online Planning
Planning prior to an interaction can lead to more effective and efficient communication. Waldron and Lavitt (2000) compared the anticipatory planning behaviors of people enrolled in a welfare-to-work program. Enrollees who obtained and maintained employment were inclined to develop more complex job interview plans than enrollees who did not obtain and maintain employment. Additionally, pre-interaction planning is associated with increased verbal fluency. Planning can occur during a conversation, or online. When people plan online, there is an increase in their cognitions about goals and plans regarding the current conversation.
Waldron (1990) recorded participants taking part in a conversation and subsequently asked them to review the video tape of their conversation. While watching the tape, participants were told to document the thoughts they had during the conversation. Content analysis of participants’ thoughts revealed that a substantial portion were regarding conversational goals and plans that could facilitate goal achievement. Furthermore, online planning during a conversation is associated with effective communication. Waldron and Applegate (1994) documented the communication behavior and plans of people who took part in a verbal disagreement. People who had more complex plans and edited during their interaction utilized more competent conflict tactics than those who did not have such complex plans and took part in less editing.
Impact Of Preconscious Activation Of Knowledge Structures On Social Interaction
There may be more or less conscious awareness of the operation of knowledge structures in social interaction. Regardless of the degree of consciousness of the goal prompted by a knowledge structure, the process underlying the pursuit of an interpersonal goal is the same. Chartrand and Bargh (1996) demonstrated that regardless of whether the goal of impression formation was prompted with explicit instructions or a prime, the subsequent behavior prompted by the goal, or the basic process of impression formation, did not differ.
Automaticity of knowledge structure activation not only impacts perceptions and explanations but also influences the likelihood of the performance of behaviors consistent with the knowledge structure. Knowledge structures such as personality traits and stereotypes can become active automatically in the presence of relevant behavior or the stereotyped group. Bargh et al. (1996) found that participants primed with the trait concept of rudeness were more likely to exhibit rude behaviors toward the experimenter. Additionally, these investigators demonstrated that participants who were primed with an elderly stereotype walked more slowly than did participants in the comparison group. So, when activated at low levels of conscious awareness, schemas increase the likelihood that people will exhibit traits and behaviors associated with the other-schema for their conversational partner.
Interpersonal goals can be activated by the psychological presence of a relational partner (Fitzsimons & Bargh 2003). To state this differently, physical presence is not a necessary condition for a relational schema to impact the social perception process or subsequent explanations of social interactions. Relational partners function as a private audience and bring to mind standards that people are obliged to meet. Baldwin et al. (1990) found that graduate students provided harsher evaluations of their own work after they were exposed to a subliminally presented picture of their scowling department chair. So, although self-, other-, and interaction schemas are likely to impact perceptions and expectations of interpersonal interactions, relational schemas for people that are not present for a specific social interaction can impact social cognitive processes as well.
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