Exploring The World Of Schemas: Definition, Examples, And How To Change Them

Medically reviewed by Andrea Brant, LMHC
Updated April 25, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
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At its core, a schema is a mental framework that assists you in organizing and interpreting information. Schemas influence how we perceive and respond to the world around us, shaping our thoughts, beliefs, and behaviors. Being more aware of them can help us detect our biases and negative schemas, and then we can seek out strategies to change them. 

Understanding the world of schemas can open a new way to understand yourself and the world around you.

Empower yourself with the knowledge of schemas

What is a schema?

A schema is a mental structure that helps us organize and categorize information, make predictions and decisions, and draw conclusions. It is like a cognitive shortcut that enables us to make sense of the world more efficiently.

Schemas might be based on past experiences, knowledge, and beliefs, and they aid us in anticipating and understanding new situations and events.

To illustrate this idea, if you have a schema for “restaurant,” you likely expect certain things to be present, such as tables, chairs, a menu, and waitstaff. When entering a new restaurant, your schema helps you quickly comprehend what is happening and what might be expected of you. New experiences also expand your schema – for example, encountering a buffet for the first time or going to a restaurant where you sit on floor cushions rather than chairs might expand your schema for restaurants. 

The development of schemas in childhood

Schemas develop and change over time, with early experiences significantly shaping our schemas. If a child goes to an aquarium for the first time and sees a dolphin, they might call it a shark, but their caregiver will likely explain to them the difference between sharks and dolphins, thus expanding their schema for “sea creature.” Childhood trauma can also shape our schemas. Childhood abuse may result in the development of a schema that guides their understanding of what is hazardous

Understanding the development of schemas in childhood may help promote positive schema formation and reduce the impact of negative schemas. Promoting positive experiences and challenging negative schemas in childhood could shape a more positive and productive outlook on life.

The functioning of schemas

Schemas are created through our experiences and the information we absorb from the world around us. As we encounter new situations and events, our brain might attempt to fit them into existing schemas or create new ones, if necessary. Our schemas help us interpret and understand new information more efficiently, potentially reducing the mental effort required to process it.

The role of schemas in memory

Schemas shape our memories, influencing what information we remember and how we recall it. Understanding this relationship can improve our ability to recall information and reduce the impact of memory biases. By recognizing and challenging our schemas, we could potentially improve our memory and recall information more accurately.

Types of schemas

To try and figure out what type of schema someone might have, it can be helpful to consider the types of schemas that exist. There are four categories of schemas: social, event, self, and cultural. The different schemas provide a broad and diverse understanding of the world. Let's explore each type in more detail.

Social schemas

Social schemas relate to social situations and relationships, and they shape our understanding of how individuals interact with one another. For example, the schema for "friendship" could include expectations for how friends treat one another, such as being supportive and trustworthy. The "romantic relationship" schema could involve expectations for how partners treat each other, such as being affectionate and attentive. These schemas influence how we approach and interact with others in social situations, shaping our relationships and experiences.

Event schemas

Event schemas relate to specific events or situations and provide a framework for understanding and responding to them. The schema for "going to the doctor" could include expectations for what will happen during the appointment, such as a physical examination and discussion of symptoms. The schema for "having a party" could involve expectations for guests' behavior, such as being social and having fun. Event schemas help us anticipate and respond to new situations more effectively.


Self-schemas relate to our sense of self and shape our understanding of our abilities and characteristics. For example, the schema for "athletic ability" could involve expectations for our physical abilities, such as running fast or playing a sport well. The schema for "intelligence" could involve expectations for our cognitive abilities, such as solving complex problems or making a certain grade on a test. Self-schemas influence our self-esteem and confidence, shaping our experiences and perceptions of ourselves.

Cultural schemas

Cultural schemas relate to cultural beliefs and practices, shaping our understanding of behavior in certain cultural contexts. The schema for "how to behave in a mosque" could involve expectations for respectful behavior, such as removing shoes and covering one's head. The schema for "how to behave at a wedding" may vary among different cultures and could involve expectations for appropriate attire and social behavior, such as what to wear and how to dance. Cultural schemas influence our behavior and understanding of cultural practices, helping us navigate new cultural contexts.

The relationship between schemas and biases

Schemas may lead to cognitive biases. Our schemas shape our perceptions of the world around us, and these conceptions might lead to the development of biases, preconceived opinions or ideas that affect how someone perceives and interprets information. For example, if someone holds a schema that certain groups are inferior or undeserving, they may hold biased opinions toward those groups and treat them unkindly. If someone holds an overly positive schema of a particular group, they may make decisions based on those preconceived notions rather than objective facts and evidence. 

Having an awareness of how our schemas and biases interact can prevent them from unfairly influencing our decision-making. Identifying our schemas and understanding how they might affect our biases can help us make more equitable and informed decisions.

The potential impact of schemas on mental health

Negative schemas can be closely linked to various mental health conditions, such as depression and anxiety. Recognizing and challenging negative schemas can improve our mental health and well-being, promoting a more positive and fulfilling life. Understanding the impact of schemas on mental health and developing strategies for changing negative schemas could make a positive impact on our understanding of self and relationships with others.

Strategies for changing schemas

If you recognize that a particular schema might impact your thoughts, beliefs, or behaviors negatively, there are several strategies you could consider for changing it.

  • Exposure To New Experiences: Seek out experiences that challenge your schemas and expose you to new perspectives and ideas. This could broaden your understanding of the world and shift your schemas.
  • Reframe Negative Experiences: If you have a negative schema about a particular event or situation, try reframing it positively. This could help to shift your perspective and build a more positive schema over time.
  • Seek Out Diverse Perspectives: Engage with individuals who have different backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives from your own. This could broaden your understanding of the world and challenge your existing schemas.
  • Practice Mindfulness: Mindfulness could assist you in becoming more aware of your thoughts and beliefs, potentially allowing you to identify and challenge negative schemas. By focusing on the present moment and accepting experiences as they are, you could develop a more balanced and positive perspective.

Empower yourself with the knowledge of schemas

Benefits of online therapy

Therapy could be a valuable tool for individuals seeking to explore and understand their schemas. By working with a therapist, you could gain insight into the schemas that might be shaping your thoughts, beliefs, and behaviors and learn strategies for changing them. Through online therapy platforms like BetterHelp, a licensed counselor could help you identify and challenge negative schemas, reframe your experiences, and gain new perspectives. You can communicate however you feel most comfortable, via text, chat, phone or video. Therapy could be a valuable tool for exploring and transforming the world of schemas and reshaping your thinking. 

Effectiveness of online therapy

Therapy can benefit individuals seeking to change negative schemas. A review of several studies highlighted the effectiveness of schema therapy for individuals with personality disorders seeking to change negative schemas. Individuals showed improvements in functioning and quality of life as well as reductions in personality disorder symptoms. 

Schema therapy integrates some core concepts of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) therapy. CBT can be just as, or even more, effective at treating anxiety, depression, PTSD, and other mental health conditions.  

Here are some reviews from those who have experienced positive results with BetterHelp therapists.

“Jesse's understanding and way to help heal by providing nurturing missed in my life has been extremely helpful. Her informative answers to narcissistic personalities and abuse increase a healing knowledge.”

“I was able to resolve a lot of issues thanks to her guidance and experience. Walk away from traumatic flashbacks..feel better about taking a break, set up a healthy routine for my mind, accept my anxiety habits and change to healthier habits...and find unresolved issues about my childhood. Thumbs up!!”


Schemas are the lenses through which we view the world, shaping our thoughts, beliefs, and behaviors. Understanding and challenging our schemas can open the door to new perspectives and a more fulfilling life. Whether seeking to broaden perspectives or shift your outlook on life, exploring the world of schemas could be a valuable and transformative journey. With online therapy, you may gain insight into the schemas that might impact your life and learn strategies for changing them.
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