A cognitive schema is basically a nicely packaged mental shortcut comprised of beliefs, thoughts, feelings, and information. Schemas efficiently help a person understand the world around them. A person takes in a TON of sights, sounds, smells, feelings, sensations, thoughts, and experiences every day. If we had to process each one of those sensations every single time we experienced them, we’d never get anything done! Our brain, therefore, does us a favor and creates these learning based shortcuts called schemas. You know how to hammer a nail in to a board, right? You don’t have to think about the nail, or the hammer, or how to hold the nail, or how to swing the hammer. You just do it. That’s a schema.
Here’s my real life example. A schema I have is beautifully kept long blonde hair belongs to women. That’s just been my experience. Other than Owen Wilson, the owner of beautiful, long, blonde hair is usually female.
Well, imagine my surprise when I walked in to what I thought was the men’s room and was immediately confronted by lengthy locks of luxurious, blonde hair softly cascading down a svelte frame! Yeah, I was embarrassed and shocked.
“Crap!” I thought to myself as my brain entered panic mode, “I walked in to the lady’s room!”
As my brain tried to register an explanation that wouldn’t later require me to put my name and face on some registry, I noticed something. The woman was facing a urinal!
“What?! There’s a urinal in the women’s restroom! H-How is she… ? Does she have a… ? No WAY!!!”
Okay. I’m an idiot. Obviously, I was in the men’s room. The blonde mane belonged to a dude. The thing is, the schema I have in my brain of hair and gender literally prevented me from seeing reality for what it was for a good five seconds. There was still some lingering doubt in my head as I settled in at the opposite end of the row of urinals. That’s a men’s room schema, ladies.
I felt comfortable this was a guy only after I got the sideways glance and head nod along with a baritone “Whassup bro?” Still shaken, my voice managed to crack a high pitched response of “Hey.” Hopefully the high pitch triggered his gender schema. Payback! Also, cut your hair… dude.