What Role Do Schemas & Beliefs Play In Sense-making

updated on 04 October 2021

Post by Endi Guza, Psychologist at Deep Breath

  Beliefs are one of the foundational elements of how we make understand the world<br>
  Beliefs are one of the foundational elements of how we make understand the world

What are mental models?

What is the output of human perception? How do we make sense of the world and make rational decisions? What are the key processes behind thinking and reasoning? 

One answer to these questions is by relying on mental models. Mental models are simple representations of the external reality that we use to understand and interact with the world around us. They are based on our unique individual life experiences, perceptions, and interpretations of the world. 

Why do we need mental models?

The amount of information that we receive from the external reality is far too great to be all immediately processed by our brains and to produce a logical output. Mental models simplify the complexity of the world by linking concepts with each other and organizing information in understandable chunks. For instance, supply and demand are mental models that help us understand how the economy works; relativity is a mental model that helps us understand how gravity works; trust is a mental model that helps us create rewarding social relationships. 

These mental models have a substantial influence on our behaviors, worldviews, and relationships. 

Schemas and beliefs

Mental models consist of two main components: schemas and mental processes that operate knowledge. In essence, schemas represent mental shortcuts that help us create judgments and make decisions based on our previous experiences, rather than analyzing every new piece of information from scratch. As such they include core beliefs about ourselves, the others, and the world; these beliefs are convictions that we actively think about and that we consider to be true. Beliefs have a major influence in the way we perceive the world and how we create relationships. If we believe that being late is a sign of unreliability, we will most likely not hire that person for the job. If we believe that people who wear black are more professional than those who wear pink, we will more likely hire the person in a black suit. 

These beliefs hold a key role in constructing schemas. Some common examples of schemas that we use in our daily lives are stereotypes, social roles, behavioral scripts, worldviews, and archetypes. For example, children may typically think of doctors holding a syringe in their hand, either from their previous experiences or from what they may have watched on TV. Because of this, they associate hospitals with pain and tend to be scared while visiting hospitals. Similarly, we attribute the color pink to girls and the color blue to boys. Hence, when we see a newborn baby wearing a pink shirt, we tend to automatically assume that it’s a girl, even though we do not actually know for sure. This shows that although schemas help us categorize information faster and more efficiently, they are often prone to bias and may be untrue. 

Self-schemas and self-esteem

Another type of schema are self-schemas, or core beliefs about ourselves. These are crucial to our self-image and self-identity and play a major role in our self-esteem. For example, if we think of ourselves as an introvert, we tend to actively use information that matches our introversion self-schema. What does this mean in practice? 

We may use general self-categorizations ("I am shy"), beliefs about how we would act in specific settings ("In a party where I don’t know anyone I would wait for my friend to introduce me") and also memories of previous events ("On my first day working for this company I had lunch alone").

By filtering information to match our preconceived ideas about ourselves, we reinforce these self-schemas. This can either enhance or damage our self-esteem, and it all depends on whether these self-schemas are negative or positive.
There is no doubt that mental models, schemas, and beliefs are all highly useful in processing information quickly and helping us understand the world faster. However, they are based solely on our subjective experiences and perceptions, and therefore they are not necessarily accurate nor true. What does this imply for us? We can learn how to recognize the schemas and beliefs that we are engaging with. This can be done through a multidimensional self-assessment test.

Once we do that, we can then learn to separate ourselves from them and replace negative self-schemas with positive ones. The key is to realize that the knowledge we have about ourselves and the world may not necessarily be true, but it can be used to enhance our experience in this world. 

As historian Yuval Noah Harari puts it: “The real test of ‘knowledge’ is not whether it is true, but whether it empowers us. Scientists usually assume that no theory is 100% correct. Consequently, truth is a poor test for knowledge. The real test is utility”. 

Do you want to learn how to identify the schemas and beliefs that you are using in your daily life? Our integrated therapy-like approach developed by psychologists can help you not only recognize your self-schemas and core beliefs, but also work on modifying them to achieve higher self-esteem for a happier life. Another way is to join one of our group sessions!

Medical disclaimer

The medical information in this article is provided as an information resource only, and is not to be used or relied on for any diagnostic or treatment purposes. Please consult your doctor for guidance about a specific medical condition.

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