III. The Schema as Adaptive

The brain of an infant may be the blank tablet envisaged by Locke, but as it develops into the mind of an adult, it is shaped by both experience and language. As the character of the maturing individual becomes defined, the mind shapes experiences decreasingly according to immediate stimuli themselves and increasingly according to linguistic interpretations of and emotional reactions to perceptions. Thus, the environment does not dictate human behavior but provides a context for its expression.

The basis for interpreting environmental stimuli is the schema—the cognitive program (Ger: Weltanschauung) which acts as a template for perceptual experience and provides expectations and explanations about objects and their relations to each other. As a frame of reference for information, ideas and behavior, it defines the mental life of the individual.

Although social intercourse plays a role in structuring both ideas (i.e., verbal concepts) and behavior (physical action), there is often a discrepancy between expressed creeds and attendant activity. If it helps to visualize this discrepancy, think of the schema as a vee with the verbal attitudes of the data track represented by one arm articulating at a point with the other arm representing the normative attitudes of the behavioral track. Daily, routine behavioral acts and comments overlap at or near this point of contact. Moving from the point of congruence toward the open end of the vee, the correlation between the two tracks drops as circumstances become more challenging and the person becomes more self-conscious. The distance between the two arms represents the emotional potential built up by a person trying to maintain a positive, superego image while doing whatever must be done to cope successfully with the real world.

When the emotional involvement is minimal (near the point of the vee), there may be no awareness that a discrepancy between creed and deed exists at all. If the discrepancy is more marked, the defense system falters, and the person experiences the emotional discomfort of cognitive dissonance until behavior can be redirected into more appropriate forms or redefined in more acceptable terms. In extreme cases, an event may be so totally unexpected that there is no reaction, emotional or physical. Such a situation is incomprehensible in that it cannot be evaluated and