Psychotherapy and Neuroscience

Schemas v.s. Appraisals


A scheme or schema (pl-schemata) is a general cognitive, knowledge structure, which represents domain-specific aspects of an individual’s perceptual experiences (of people or objects) and behavioral responses or action sequences generated by those experiences (Piaget, 1972; Markus, 1977).  It is derived from an episode or prescribed activity and is “repeatable and generalizable” to likewise future situations (p. 15-Piaget, 1972). As a mental representation, a  schema, arranges and organizes incoming information through cognitive operations, categorizes and sorts likeness of experience, detects and analyzes stimulus patterns, makes inferences on vague, implicit information and transactions, transforms and restructures prior beliefs in response to changing information, attributes personal meaningfulness to transactions and to the self, and allows for the regeneration and recreation of prior perceptual, emotional, cognitive, and behavioral experiences (Nelson, 1986). A schematic representation reflects “top-down”, theory-driven, cognitive informational processing as opposed to “bottom-up” immediate sensorimotor data-driven processing (p. 37-Singer and Salovey, 1991).


self-schema is a generalized cognitive assessment, belief, or idea about the self, which has been derived from many prior experiences, episodes, and actions.  These self-statements represent how others and how one, as a participant-observer, would assess, in total, one’s cumulatively experienced behavioral and action responses, personality tendencies, and perceived self-image. Statements like, “I am talkative”  “I am sloppy” “I am a hard worker” “I am a fast learner” are each derived from generalizations of how one has responded over many different prior episodes as well as how one has conceptualized, defined, and will later predict one’s current and future behavior (Markus, 1977). The ability for self-schema expression suggests an inclination for cognitive conservatism, i.e. the ability for representing seemingly complex environmental input in as general, simple, concise, and meaningful manner as possible (p. 51-Singer and Salovey, 1991).  The ability for assessing one’s behavioral responses is, interestingly, finally attained by a developing child at around seven years (Piaget, 1972-p. 19).  Therefore self-schemata are higher order mental representations that serve to generalize across episodes. After their formation, they tend to later guide and filter the processing of ongoing and later self-relevant information (Markus, 1977; Fiske and Taylor, 1991 ).

However, when it comes to a person’s immediate relationship with the environment (e.g. an object, task, interpersonal interaction, etc.), a self-schema, as defined above, represents but a part of the interpersonal self (Sullivan, 1953).  Self-schemas are cumulative interpretations of one’s prior behavioral responses to certain social situations and can be conceptualized as follows, “I am shy” and “I am sociable”.  Once implicitly conceptualized, self-schemas can later serve to guide the manner in which one presents or projects oneself in interaction with another and how one’s behavior is observed by another during interpersonal self-other interactions.  However, self-schemata fail to capture one’s sense of self during specific interactions.  As a result, a self-schema, as conceptualized above, seems to be far removed from the numerous event schemas from which it had been originally derived.  In response to its characteristic for top-down processing, self-schemas fail to capture the meaningfulness or personal relevance of any one or more events associated with this representation of the self.

Self-Other Schemas

On the other hand, a self-other schema, or an interpersonal schema, may be conceived as a schema that cumulatively conceptualizes the cognitive-emotional self, at any point in time, as a dynamic participant with another or others during social interactions.  It evolves from earlier cumulatively derived mental representations of relationship patterns reflecting the interplay between self in interaction with others (Andersen & Glassman, 1995).  As generalized representations of self-other relationships (Safran, 1990a,b), interpersonal schemas interpret and attribute meaning to later interpersonal nonverbal and verbal interactions.  They, and the event schemas or scripts underlying their expression, later generate  behavioral responses and schematized affective and cognitive reactions(p. 51-Piaget, 1981), or schema-triggered affect (Fiske & Pavelchak, 1986), to similarly categorized  interpersonal situations, even though the nature of interaction may vary from one situation to the next (Andersen & Glassman, 1995).

Mark Baldwin sought to gain greater specificity with regards to the different components underlying the expression of self-other schemas also termed relational schemas.   Relational schemas represent information about the self and other during interactions (p. 467-Baldwin, 1992).  Likewise, scripts may be understood as being directly tied to perceptual images of self and other.  Relational schemas accompany the generation of each script and closely represent and repeat like interpersonal interactions shared by two participating individuals (Baldwin, 1992).   Self-other cognitive interplay, as such, inherently reflects the “interpersonal nature of the self” (Andersen, Reznik, and Chen, 1997).

Self-other schemas repeatedly experienced over time cumulatively support the later development and conceptualization of the development of a working model of self-other relationships and the later expression of one’s self-concept.  Such working models function as (proximity-seeking behavioral-) cognitive maps to help each person to behaviorally navigate (to approach or avoid interaction with others) in one’s respective social world (p. 462-Baldwin, 1992).  Cognitive maps for proximity (approach-avoidance), as such, are likely mediated by processes that spatially analyze schematic self-other material over time.

Social Appraisals

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines an appraisal as an evaluation of worth, significance, or status; an estimate.  An appraisal, as such, is part of a process that assesses the meaningfulness and relevance of ongoing and previously experienced perceptual (sensory-related) and/or emotional (reward or aversive-related) schematic experience.  A social appraisal (or a self-other appraisal as social suggests the existence of interaction between two human beings) is a type of appraisal that cumulatively assesses the self, at any point in time, as a dynamic participant who interprets and attributes meaning to interpersonal interactions between self and other (Fiske and Taylor, 1991).   Later discussion will elaborate on the nature, course, progression, and expression of the social appraisal process.

The social appraisal process can best be understood as being composed of sequentially expressed appraisals that are differentially expressed during an event, episode, or task to facilitate problem-solving and transaction analysis.  Initial appraisals during social interactions are primarily derived from raw data and perceptual input. Later social appraisal processes are derived from emotionally-generated cognitive expression that conceptualizes planning for action and coping.  Ongoing appraisals of self and other, like self-other schemas, may be considered to be more immediately tied to specific scripts and episodes, when allowed expression and conceptualization, i.e. “I am not good enough,” “I am lovable,” and “I am bad.”  But unlike self-other schemas, they are reflective of lower-order processing and are more directly tied to sensory data from which they had been directly derived.


Andersen, S.M. & Glassman, N.S. (1995).  Responding to significant others when they are not there: Effects on interpersonal inference.  In R.M. Sorrentino & E.T. Higgins (Eds.) Handbook of Motivation and Cognition: The Interpersonal Context-Volume 3 (pp. 262-321). New York Guifford.

Andersen, S.M., Reznik, I., &  Chen, S. (1997). The self in relation to others: Cognitive and motivational underpinnings. In J.G. Snodgrass &  R.L. Thompson (Eds.),  The self across psychology: Self- recognition, self-awareness, and the self-concept (pp. 233-275). New York: New York Academy of Sciences.

Baldwin, M.W. (1992). Relational schemas and the processing of social information.  Psychological Bulletin, 112(1):461-484, 1992.

Fiske, S.T. & Pavelchak, M. (1986). Category-based versus piecemeal-based affective responses: Developments in schema-triggered affect.  In: R.M. Sorrentino & E.T. Higgins (Eds.) Handbook of Motivation & Cognition: Foundations of Social Behavior-Volume 1 (pp. 167-203). New York: Guilford.

Fiske, S.T. &  Taylor, S.E. (1991).  Social Cognition. New York, New York: McGraw-Hill, Inc.

Markus, H. (1977). Self-schemata and processing information about the self.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 35(2), 63-78.

Nelson, K. (1986). Event knowledge and cognitive development.  Ed.: K. Nelson. In:  Event knowledge: structure and function in development, pp. 1-19.  Hillsdale, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Assoc., Publishers.

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Piaget, J. (1981). Intelligence and Affectivity. Palo Alto, California: Annual Reviews, Inc.,

Safran, J.D. (1990a).  Towards a refinement of cognitive therapy in light of interpersonal theory: I. Theory.  Clinical Psychology Review, 10 (), 87-105.

Safran, J.D. (1990b). Towards a refinement of cognitive therapy in light of interpersonal theory: II. Practice.  Clinical Psychology Review, 10(), 107-121.

Singer, J.L. &  Salovey, P. (1991). Organized knowledge structures and personality: person schemas, self schemas, prototypes, and scripts. In M.J. Horowitz, editor, In:  Person Schemas and Maladaptive Interpersonal Patterns, pages 33-79. Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press.

Sullivan, H.S. (1953).  The Interpersonal Theory of Psychiatry.  New York, New York: Norton and Company.