My post on perception led to several interesting and thought provoking discussions among my family and friends. After giving the topic more consideration, I decided to continue the conversation with additional thoughts.
In the previous post, I touched on how established “schemas” can skew perceptions, impacting the way we process events and interactions with others.
So let’s start with the term “schema”. According to an online psychology text, “a schema is a mental concept that informs a person about what to expect from a variety of experiences and situations. Schemas are developed based on information provided by life experiences and are then stored in memory. Our brains create and use schemas as a short cut to make future encounters with similar situations easier to navigate (my emphasis)”.
For example, I have a schema for the way newspapers are organized as opposed to a novel. When I sit down to read a newspaper, I don’t expect the stories to be related to one another like chapters in a book. I don’t have to relearn the structure. I know what to expect.
Schemas, by definition, impact all future experiences. That’s fine when it comes to reading newspapers, but a lot trickier when it comes to interacting with people.
We form schemas about people, and unfortunately, they’re often formed with incomplete information. The schema, however, easily becomes the lens through which we filter every future encounter.
As mentioned in the previous post, the brain is wired to fit information into an existing framework about our world and the people in it, because anything that runs contrary causes anxiety and discomfort. Not that we’re aware there’s discomfort because our brains engage in all kinds of shenanigans to shield us from it. So we see what we expect to see, and our brains are happy.
So, if you’ve formed a schema about a person that says, “she is manipulative”, then future interactions are influenced by that perception. Comments said innocently can be unfairly attributed to covert intentions.
If you’ve formed a schema that a person is insincere, then every facial expression, compliment or kindness can be suspect.
If you’ve formed a schema that a person isn’t to be trusted, then any inconsistency, mistake, or moment of forgetfulness can be cause for suspicion.
If you have a schema that a person is always easygoing, then you may be less attentive when things go wrong in their lives, assuming the person will, yet again, just roll with the punches.
If you have a schema that a person has a good sense of humor, you might not think twice about saying something in jest that might be insensitive or hurtful, underestimating the comment’s impact.
These are just a few of the consequences of schema activation that come to mind. There are certainly many more and it probably influences every interaction we have on some level.
Now I don’t want to wade into waters that are over my head since I don’t have a degree in psychology, but it seems to me that if I am applying this information correctly, then we need to be very aware of our schemas in order to treat people fairly and lovingly.
After all, people can change. We are not our history. Prior experiences may have formed who we are, but everyone has the freedom to decide how to behave. Ideally, as we mature, we strive to embrace and practice the highest values.
But what might not change is perception. It may be challenging to notice changes in someone because we’re looking for old behavior. And waiting for the slip up to confirm our schema.
There is a wonderful quote that speaks to the depth of the human experience and how little we may actually know about anybody or what they are going through at any given moment:
“There isn’t anyone you couldn’t love once you’ve heard their story.” (author Mary Lou Kownacki)
This quote gives me pause. And makes me wonder who I’ve interacted with based on an old schema. Maybe even one that was formed unfairly. How many times have we been told that first impressions are lasting? Turns out, they are.
I certainly don’t want someone to form a schema about me based on any one moment in time, or worse yet, based on a mistake I’ve made. Nobody is perfect, so it happens. So I don’t want to deny someone else the benefit of the doubt, or the grace and forgiveness that God extends to me.
So how can we become more aware of our schemas and their influence? Here are some ideas:
- Be open to the possibility our perceptions may be skewed.
- Pray and ask God to open our eyes, to see what is hidden.
- Observe and stick to the facts of a situation. Be mindful of what you might be filling in based on past experience.
- Pause before responding. Think whether our response makes any assumptions about the other person that might not be true.
- Don’t be quick to dismiss “uncharacteristic” behavior as a fluke. Maybe it’s evidence of an inaccurate schema, or beginning signs of changes a person is actively working toward.
- Be willing to admit when you’ve read a situation or person inaccurately. Becoming aware of our schemas is how we begin to understand their influence.
We can’t go through life without schemas. They help us efficiently navigate through our everyday interactions. But we must be mindful of their influence, and their tendency to bias our perception of reality.
Do you think people can change and how easily do you find it to notice changes?
And on another note, thanks to Erin Worden for the new look to my Home and About Me pages!