Schemas. The Lens’ We All Have.

No one really sees the world objectively. That is both the magic and issue with the subjective experience of life. Every individual’s combination of genetics, upbringing, and environmental circumstances is totally unique.

Every individual’s combination of genetics, upbringing, and environmental circumstances is totally unique. We perceive and assess a situation through our own understanding of the world.

Herein lie schemas.

Schema = a structure of core beliefs, of which all beliefs are interconnected.

Schematic Processing = the cognitive tendency to filter information through a specific lens.

Wright, Basco, & Thase (2006)

Think of a web, that has woven together set ideas, themes, objects, beliefs and even colours. When one piece of a schema is recognised in the world, the others members in that schema are automatically activated. The information that we process is thought to be dependent on the schemas we have cultivated.

Through the lens of Evolutionary Psychology, we understand that schemas are an adaptive function to preserve conscious, mental energy. Schemas act as a mental short-cut, we safe conscious thinking as things that we have unconsciously associated together activate one another.

For example, when I see a banana I feel hungry. I relate it to ‘potassium’, ‘tropical’, and ‘delicious’. In contrast, if Susie-Smith sees a banana, she immediately feels disgusted. She associates it with ‘sticky’, ‘high glycemic index’ and ‘gross’.

Same banana, different connotations. To each their own.

So, When Can Schemas Get Problematic?

Schemas don’t seem so bad when they’re about bananas. It can get sticky however, when schemas house problematic core beliefs.

Making a mistake at work and having your boss chastise you could be tolerable for Tod, and unbearable for Bob. The difference could come down to what schemas Tod and Bob have, and which schema is being activated.

The Cognitive Models of Psychopathology outline that behavioural or emotional problems we have, are stirred from our personal biases in how we interpret an event – based on the schemas we have.

Imagine Bob has a dysfunctional schema, in which a core belief is ‘I am worthless’. When his boss tells him off, he immediately feels really sad. His automatic thoughts (= intermediate beliefs) are many.

  1. “It is unacceptable to not provide value” = Attitude
  2. “If I work hard, I can be useful” = Positive Assumption
  3. “If I don’t work hard, I will be useless” = Negative Assumption
  4. “I have to be good at everything I do” = Rule

Unfortunately schemas often inflexible, as in they are hard to change.

Why are Schemas Inflexible?

A couple reasons.

  1. Schemas are maintained by a Confirmation Bias. Any information that is consistent with the schema is noticed and any information that would challenge the schema is not given attention.
    • Bob filters out situations, conversations or information that goes against the core belief of worthlessness.
  2. Often the core beliefs are formed early in life, through socialisation of care-takers sharing certain information. Beliefs about our identity are formed early in our lives, as that is when we are developing them. They are stable and hard to modify because they are so basic.
    • Bob was often put down by his grandfather, who told him he needed to contribute to the family otherwise he was useless.
  3. Schemas are hard to distinguish because they are not conscious. Different schemas are activated because of different moments. In order to encourage change, we need to be able to identify the schemas.
    • Bob had never considered this core belief before. Only once that they became very jarring, was when Bob decided to investigate.

How to Modify Schemas?

Not all hope is lost! The path to modifying schemas is cognitive restructuring. It shoulds scary, but it is not.

Cognitive Restructuring = increase awareness of, challenge, and ultimately change dysfunctional cognitive structures.

Wright, Basco, & Thase (2006)

Because core beliefs are hard to alter, the trick is to aim for the automatic thoughts we have (the assumptions, rules or attitudes we have about a situation).

  1. Discover what your automatic negative thoughts, assumptions, rules or attitudes you have about yourself, the world and your future.
    • Self-monitor your reactions to situations to identify, monitor and categorise automatic thoughts. Add how credible they seem.
    • Examine the advantages and disadvantages of the automatic thoughts, and how realistic they are. You’ll re-evaluate the catastrophic or dichotomous automatic belief, and see it more objectively.
    • Defining the terms – for example, what does being a “loser” mean?
  2. Re-formulate your response by planning a more rational response to the thoughts.
  3. Identify and remove your cognitive errors by testing them.
    • Make a behavioural experiment to test out specific expectations. Once your expectation is not met, then you present evidence against your false belief which translates to letting go of it.
  4. Alter and correct false these automatic thoughts.


Wright, J. H., Basco, M. R., & Thase, M. E. (2006). Learning Cognitive-Behavior Therapy: An Illustrated Guide. American Psychiatric Publishing, Inc.

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