Social Schemas: Our Baseline Assumptions

A prominent concept in social psychology is the social schema. A social schema is a list of expectations we have for a given social environment and general codes of conduct we adhere to. We have social schemas for most social interactions we can think of, for example, when going to a restaurant there are ways in which we know how to act and not to act and those expectations and guides to action are different from how we act and expect others to act on public transit, at funerals, weddings, bars, when interacting with professors or other students, etc… We can think of them as our default framing of situations. In light of Bergs paper and the social schema concept, I believe that Competition has been wedging its way into an increasing number of our social schemas, at least here in the west. We have to control the expectation of competition by being aware of what schemas competition is productive (or unproductive) in. Furthermore, when it is productive, we have to be sensitive to, and reflect on, our default modes of action.

Berg showed how our assumptions can influence how we act in a given situation. The example she uses to argue this is the Red-Blue game which shows how, when participants are given somewhat ambiguous instructions about the goal of the game, they assume it is a competition which leads to both teams losing. This knee-jerk reaction, if reflected on, could yield a more productive strategy, such as cooperating. Cooperating here would allow both teams to win. As @montylussow pointed out, what Berg’s paper shows is that competition is an integral part of business culture. She continues to provide the possibility that this may not reflect a broader cultural norm. I think we can substitute cultural norm here for social schema. Therefore, what Bergs paper shows, is that competition has at least become part of our business schema.

This leads me to wonder how widespread this proliferation of competition is. How many other schemas are we acquiring that lead us to expect competition and act accordingly? When our economic system is built on competition, it is bound to spread to other areas of our lives. I’m not making a normative claim here about competition in our economic system nor its place in other parts of our lives. Competition may be a sign of health in our economic system as Tepper showed with the recent burgeoning of monopolies and the lack of competition and negative impacts they bring. Furthermore, as others we read have argued, both competition and cooperation are integral to our society. There are, however, areas of our lives that competition would degrade. Therefore, we have to be careful which schemas we allow competition into. And once they are there, and I think Berg would agree, we have to be aware of our assumptions and expectations because competition, even in business, cannot always be the best course of action, even if it may be sometimes.

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  1. You made a great connection of Berg’s paper with our social schemas and how we have to be aware of our assumptions and expectations. I do agree that competition and cooperation are integral to our society.


  2. Thank you for your response. I think it’s interesting that people are inclined to assume that any given activity with a vague goal is a competition. I wonder if this can be used to argue that competition among each other is natural and an intrinsic part of human behaviour. Perhaps this is related to the way competition is seen in the world, such as through economics as you mentioned.


  3. Thank you for your commentary on Berg’s essay. I particular find it interesting that you related this discussion back to the idea of social schemas, and i would agree with you in that competition is a part of our social schemas. One thing that comes to mind instantly is the feeling of doing a poorer job than your classmates on an assignment. Of course, other students’ grades do not affect your own, but I’m sure we’ve all had the feeling of being one-upped by a student who got a better grade. It’s quite embedded in our subconscious.

    I really liked your final paragraph regarding acting accordingly and rationally in competitive environments in our social schemas. Competition definitely doesn’t belong in every social schema, but (perhaps this is pessimistic thinking), I don’t know if we can be expected to act rationally and control this. Competition is extremely embedded in our culture, and it’d be hard to unlearn some of the the negative notions associated with competition. Recognizing these and selectively choosing which social schemas can benefit from competition can be a difficult process.


  4. @kostaxinos6906 I agree with you. I think my final paragraph may have been a bit optimistic. I believe that most of our values and norms are acted upon unconsciously and it is extremely hard to know what is influencing what. It’s also very hard to be aware of our moral judgments of other people let alone be aware of them and decide not to pay attention to them. A lot of our moral judgments seem to be more visceral and emotional than rational. It’s a tall order to ask us to be totally rational beings that know who to judge and when to be competitive. It’s not like we can just turn on a switch every-time we think competition is valuable. The main take away, I think, should be that being aware of the complex ways situations affect us, and that they affect us in myriad ways unconsciously, is the starting point for more informed and productive action.


  5. @kristenunrau5762, to reply to your wondering on whether my response could be an argument for the innateness of competition: I don’t think it would be a very convincing argument because Social Schemas speak about our expectations in social situations. Social schemas themselves may be somewhat innate or largely a product of culture. It could be that culture shapes our social schemas, in which case, culture places competition as a cultural phenomenon into our social schemas i.e. we learn it. It also could be that competition is an innate part of our actions and therefore an innate part of our social schemas. This doesn’t solve anything because it brings you right back to square one, straight back into the puzzle of how nature and nurture fit together.


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