According to schema theory, the encoding and processing of information depends on learned, relatively stable cognitive structures in long-term memory, so called schemas (Information Processing). These cognitive structures include knowledge about concepts, persons, events, and the self. When individuals encounter a stimulus, they search their minds for the appropriate schema to match the stimulus. The selected schema then structures the way the stimulus is interpreted. Because individuals use their prior knowledge to process and to understand the stimuli, schema theory is an example of topdown or concept-driven processing.
This basic idea of schemas can be traced back to the philosopher Immanuel Kant, who proposed the existence of innate structures that guide us to perceive the world. The scientific concept, however, was introduced by British psychologist Sir Frederic Bartlett in 1932. Bartlett investigated the recall of folktales and he observed that individuals’ understanding of the tales was shaped by their expectations. He concluded that individuals have substantive numbers of mental structures that are responsible for the schematized errors in the recall of those tales. Because Bartlett’s schema construct was not compatible with the dominant paradigm in psychology in the 1930s, the concept needed another 40 years until it re-emerged as a dominant theory in the 1970s. The term “frame” is often used synonymously. Scripts, which are a subclass of schemas, are used to account for sequences of actions.
Schemas are believed to have a hierarchical structure with more abstract and general information at the top and more specific categories at lower levels. A schema is always connected to other schemas in a web of associations (Taylor & Crocker 1981). When a stimulus activates a schema, this can activate other interconnected schemas. Although schemas can vary in their accessibility, they are long-term, relatively permanent structures that are capable of being searched, retrieved, and stored again (Rumelhart 1980).
Functions Of Schemas
With regard to media effects, schemas have three main functions (Graber 1984; Taylor & Crocker 1981): First, they facilitate the processing of information because they enable individuals to organize and retrieve information in a structured manner. Stable schemas lend a sense of order to our understanding of the world. If individuals shifted their schemas in response to any new information this order would be lost, and we would be unable to cope with our environment. Second, schemas determine which bits of information are perceived and processed by individuals. Schemas structure the way in which we perceive the world: when a message is matched against a schema, elements of the message are ordered in a manner that reflects the structure of the schema (Rumelhart 1980). According to schema theory, people are cognitive misers because they strive to process the incoming information economically. Therefore, people do not attend to all the information they are exposed to. When confronted with new, incoming information, people draw on their existing schemas to understand and to assimilate the message. When individuals cannot identify a schema to understand the message, either they can attempt to establish a new schema, or the information cannot be integrated. In fact, schema theory posits that schema-irrelevant information tends to be ignored, and will therefore not be memorized.
Third and last, schemas help individuals to fill in the gaps when information is incomplete. Individuals are likely to go beyond the information that is presented in the media because they draw inferences that are congruent with their pre-existing schemas. In this context, Minsky (1975) introduced the term “default values.” Schemas have slots that represent the information inside the schema. For instance, politicians are commonly believed to be well dressed, quick-witted, married, and conversant with politics. This politician schema would have four slots. If a media message will not provide information about one of these four slots (e.g., a politician’s marital status), the schema provides a default value, and the missing information will be automatically supplemented (i.e., individuals believe the politician is married).
A Schema Theory Perspective On Media Effects
The most extensive application of schema theory in communication research concerns news reception and news effects. For any topic in the news, people have from none to many schemas. As Graber (1984) observed, people would not be able to tame the information tide without their schemas. Schema theory helps to explain how people represent the public agenda, learn from the news, resist media information, and change their existing attitudes.
Schemas And Agenda Setting
From a schema theory perspective, issues can be understood as individual schemas. These schemas are stored in long-term memory; they can be retrieved and made salient by media coverage (Roessler 1999). The importance that individuals attach to public issues is determined not only by the amount of media coverage but also by individual schemas. Individuals do not simply count how often an issue occurs in the media and assess issue importance from the simple number of counts.
An agenda-setting effect can be described as an interaction between individual schemas and the amount of media coverage. According to schema theory, this effect depends on two crucial features. First, the more frequently a schema is activated, the higher is its accessibility and the more likely are agenda-setting effects. Second, however, the amount of schema activation depends on the fit between the issue schema and the individual schema. If an issue corresponds to a recipient’s individual schema, there will be a higher agenda-setting effect than with an ill-fitting schema (Tiele & Scherer 2004).
Schemas And Learning From The News
Rumelhart (1980) suggests three broad processes of schema learning: accretion, tuning, and restructuring. Accretion refers to the accumulation of new information into an existing schema, following the schematic structure that is already present. This kind of learning allows the acquisition of large amounts of specific knowledge about a given topic. With regard to media effects, the process of accretion explains why prior knowledge is associated with greater learning. When individuals already possess schemas about a topic, they are more likely to understand the information because it can be easily integrated into an already existing structure. This should also lead to better recall of the information learned.
When there is no schema available into which the incoming information can be integrated, individuals cannot learn the information effectively (Rhee & Cappella 1997). If individuals are nevertheless willing to process and to understand the information, there must be a modification of existing schemas. This can be accomplished either by the tuning of an existing schema or by the creation of a new one (restructuring). The more schema-discrepant the incoming information is the greater is the necessity for change. If there is a rather small discrepancy, tuning may be sufficient. Tuning involves the gradual modification of a schema. This can occur by continuously upgrading it in the direction of the current experience, for instance by adding a new slot to the schema or by generalizing a schema to other situations (see also Scheufele 2004). However, when there is highly schema-discrepant information, the creation of a new schema is required. In the context of news reception, tuning and restructuring probably occur less frequently than accretion. The first two processes require a considerable amount of time and effort. Hence, individuals will mostly tend to ignore the information instead of restructuring their memory system.
Schemas And Resistance To Change
Information from the media becomes subject to a schematic filtering. Rarely do individuals process the new information in a neutral and unbiased manner. An activated schema directs attention to certain aspects of a message that are relevant to the schema. Schematic processing is the principal reason why individuals forget specific details of news reports and retain only global impressions: Individuals mainly extract personally relevant information that suits their personal schemas (Graber 1984). Thus, from a schema theory perspective, schema-inconsistent information will show weaker media effects than schema-consistent information (Shen 2004).
Resistance to schema change is contingent upon at least three other major factors (Crocker et al. 1984; Scheufele 2004): the level of initial schema development, the ambiguity or consonance of the incoming information, and the frequency of the inconsistent information. For well-developed schemas, inconsistent information is confronted with a vast store of congruent information. In light of this schema-congruent evidence, incongruent information is less likely to elicit change. This idea corresponds to persuasion theory, which posits that more knowledgeable people are more difficult to persuade (e.g., Petty et al. 2002).
For example, it is more difficult to change an expert’s schema than a novice’s, because change has higher costs for the expert than for the novice: changing the expert’s schema would mean abandoning a large amount of established, schema-consistent information. The ambiguity of the incoming information also impacts the resistance to schema change (Crocker et al. 1984). The more ambiguous (i.e., contradictory and conflicting) and the less consonant media coverage is, the less likely is it that an existing schema will change. Last but not least, the simple frequency of inconsistent information is a crucial predictor of schema change.
Schemas And Attitude Change
Attitude theories emphasize the evaluative components of attitude objects. A schema theory account of attitude change is built on the idea that attitude change depends on salient schemas. In expressing and forming their attitudes, individuals draw on the schemas that come to their minds at the time a judgment is called for. Price and Tewksbury (1997) posit that the news media determine the schemas that are activated when people are called on to make a judgment about an issue.
This idea is based on an associative network model of human memory, which assumes that knowledge is organized as an associated web of cognitive units such as schemas. Within this network, the activation of one schema can spread through the network to interconnected schemas, leading to the activation of related concepts. At any single point in time, only a small part of the knowledge store is subject to active thought. First, there are schemas always ready to be activated because they have a high baseline excitation level (chronically accessible schemas). Moreover, there are salient attributes of the current situation that render accessible other concepts that are applicable to that situation (temporarily accessible schemas). As known from psychological priming research, both recentness and frequency of activation contribute to a schema’s temporary accessibility (Higgins 1996). When individuals read or watch news, schemas are activated that have the highest excitation level. When these schemas are judged as relevant for the situation at hand, they are used in evaluations, therefore influencing attitude construction and change.
Measurement Of Schemas
Schemas are basically unobserved constructs; therefore evidence for a schema’s existence is always indirect (Rhee & Cappella 1997, 229). In order to measure schemas, scholars have mainly relied on questionnaire techniques and experimental procedures. In questionnaires, schemas are mostly assessed by open questions and item batteries. For instance, Warlaumont (1997) measured consumers’ schemas about reality-style advertising by asking respondents to freely write down their impressions about the ads. A content analysis of these written responses indicated that the realism of those ads was schemainconsistent with consumers’ expectations. Miller et al. (1986) also transformed answers to open-ended questions into several dummy categories, and these categories were then factor analyzed. The resulting factors were interpreted as schemas. As another technique, Fredin and Tabaczynski (1993) measured media-schemas by asking people closed-ended survey questions about how they perceive their local media.
In experiments, schemas are usually measured before the stimulus treatment. For example, Shen (2004) asked subjects to fill out a survey prior to the experiment (under the guise of a different research project). On the basis of that, subjects could be divided into several groups according to their pre-existing schemas. At the time of the real experiment, groups received a schema-consistent or schemainconsistent newspaper article. Rather than measuring schemas before the stimulus, some authors directly manipulate the schemas. Wicks and Drew (1991) gave their subjects a newspaper article meant to invoke a schema about population growth. After some filler stories, subjects read other newspaper articles that were either consistent or inconsistent with their initially invoked schema.
Critique And Advancements
Despite its merits for media effects research, schema theory has been criticized by a number of writers (e.g., Kuklinski et al. 1991; Taylor & Crocker 1981; Zillmann & Brosius 2000). The main point of criticism is that schema theory is marred by considerable conceptual imprecision, and this has led to rather vague effect predictions. In fact, almost every media effect or non-effect can be explained by schema theory. Therefore, rather than predicting and testing specific hypotheses, schema theory is more suited to give a degree of plausibility to observed effects (Zillmann & Brosius 2000). To put it bluntly, it is easy to find a schema theory explanation for a result; however, it is almost impossible to find results that cannot be explained by schema theory. Another point of critique is that schema theory draws a static picture of information processing. Schemas are understood as the building blocks of cognition (Rumelhart 1980); they are searched, retrieved, or stored. However, modern accounts of learning and remembering assert that the human cognitive system is a highly plastic and dynamic network that is constantly in a state of change (Iran-Nejad & Winsler 2000). In the face of this continuous change, the idea of schemas as pre-existing, long-term structures is questionable. As Smith (1996, 901) puts it: “It seems likely that all types of cognitive representations will be found to be flexibly reconstructed in a context-sensitive way rather than retrieved from memory as they were stored – like items buried in a time capsule.”
This critique notwithstanding, the basic assumption of schema theory that information processing is influenced by previous knowledge is generally accepted among media effects researchers (Zillmann & Brosius 2000). However, there are some advances on and some alternatives to schema theory. First of all, non-structural schema theory (Iran-Nejad & Winsler 2000) and connectionist models (e.g., Smith 1996) meet the enormous flexibility of human cognition better. Beside these, attitude theories allow sharper predictions of media effects in general and attitude change in particular. The elaboration likelihood model (Petty et al. 2002) or the heuristic-systematic model (Chen & Chaiken 1999) not only describe specific routes of attitude change but also integrate concepts such as involvement or heuristics. At the same time, they can also account for concept-driven information processing.
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