Self-Schemas–What Makes Your Personality!

Written by: Matthew Sabatine

The following article/post represents only the views of the author and not everyone at Common Issues.

We have beliefs and notions about ourselves as well as others. Schemas are the categories under which we cognitively organize such knowledge. We have self-schemas [1]. Self-schemas are molded and shaped by past experiences, social interactions, family, childhood, education, society, and culture. Impressions and feedback from societal influences are major schema-shapers, especially in the context of media influences. Just look at how television, tabloids, celebrities, politicians, and the punditocracy cause us to view the rich and poor and where we feel ourselves to exist in the hierarchy.

Schemas have two poles or extremities: wholesome versus noxious, boisterous versus tranquil, polite versus impolite, strong and muscular versus weak and emaciated, energetic versus deskbound. We often like to think of ourselves as possessing these in the form of either/or characteristics when it might be more realistic to think of them as existing on a spectrum where we lie somewhere in the middle between the two extremes [1].

Self-schemas are also sculpted by the numerous responsibilities and assignments we take on throughout life. Being a friend, being a sister, a brother, a parent, a coworker, etc. inspires how we schematize about ourselves and how we behave in any circumstance [1].

Since we hold more information and opinions about ourselves than anything else, our self-schemas are going to be more intricate and wide-ranging. We have a schema about who we want to be in the future and self-reflections on what we fear we will actualize. Such intricate and wide-ranging self-schemas is advantageous as they aid us in preventing negative events or failures in life. If one schema is despairing us, we have other schemas from which to derive positivity and happy feelings. This is relayed by Makrus and Sentis from 1982 [2].

The organization of this self-knowledge in memory and its impact on thoughts, feelings, and behaviors was relevant in a study done by Markus (1977). I quote:

“Participants who had previously rated themselves as either self-schematic on the trait of dependence or independence, or aschematic on both, completed a reaction time task. Participants were presented on a screen with words that were associated with independence (e.g. assertive) and dependence (e.g. obliging) and were asked to press a ‘me’ button if this described them, or a ‘not me’ button if it did not. Participants who were self-schematic on independence or dependence were must faster at identifying whether a word characterized them than participants who were aschematic on either of these characteristics. Moreover, self-schematic participants also had better memory for incidents from the past which demonstrated their dependence or independence. [2]

This motivates me to believe in the power of belief for supplementing your performance in something. Such beliefs are useful, even if those beliefs are preconceived and we often don’t like to think preconceptions are realistic.

 Schemata manipulate and sway awareness, noticeability, and the incorporation of new knowledge, because people are more inclined to have a laser-like focus on things agreeing with their already established schema. This is confirmation bias. We tend to dislike anything that refutes our schemas, so we manipulate those refutations to agree with our schemas. Schemata are usually stubborn and uncompromising, even when challenged by contradictory information. We only choose to change when the contradictory information coerces us to change. Personally speaking, schemata remind me of deceptive little imps, since they don’t always allow us to see things for what they intrinsically are, and therefore it is strange to say that schemata help us apprehend the world and the constantly fluctuating environment [3]. But these schemata that don’t allow us to have omniscience nor see objective reality are still necessary for having educational rubrics, traditions, customs, stereotypes, social roles, scripts, worldviews and archetypes [4].

Still, being as impish as they are, schemata interfere with the acceptance and application of new information, which is something relevant to information theory, that is about how memories interfere and compete with each other to make it difficult to retrieve certain memories, especially some long-term memories that can’t convert over into short-term memory [5]. Often, our stereotypes lead to prejudiced and unfair dialogues, debates, and hopes that cause us to see and remember things that had not happened but are still plausible and convincing in relation to our schemas.

A 2003 study examined and demonstrated this:

“The authors examined how a crime schema influenced the types of details witnesses recalled over multiple interviews that varied in delay before the initial interview and between subsequent interviews. Accuracy data showed that, in general, schema-irrelevant traces experienced greater decay than schema consistent and schema-inconsistent traces after the initial interview and that delaying the initial interview negatively affected recall at the initial interview but led to less decay over subsequent interviews. Ambiguity of the crime stimulus was also manipulated. Witnesses used their schemas to interpret ambiguous information and, as a result, made more schema-consistent intrusions and less correct responses and were more likely to report false memories that involved conscious recollection (using the remember-know paradigm) [6]. “

Perhaps an illustration would help us here: if a suave businessman pulled a knife on a bedraggled homeless man, what do you expect bystanders to remember about the event? Who would they recall pulling the knife? They may be inclined to remember the bedraggled homeless man pulling the knife, perhaps because of the mental instability that is biasedly associated with homeless people and the mental stability associated with suave, well-dressed people [4].

Schemata relate or connect to one another. Numerous clashing schemata can be targeting the same stuff. Schemata are overall understood as having a level of activation circulating among other similar schemata. Several different factors determine which schema your brain selects, such as: 1) the effortlessness by which a schema springs to mind, as facilitated by personal experience and know-how. This is used as a shortcut that depends on choosing the most ordinary explanation of what the new information in front of you means, and 2) any fleeting, undetectable stimulus sufficing to prompt a schema to be useful for perceiving later obscure information to your senses [4].

So now, if we want to discuss schemata as tools for priming and conditioning us, and how we see ourselves, it becomes necessary to know how they are involved with personality disorders.

Avoidant personality disorder correlates with extreme amounts of emotional abuse in childhood. There is evidence that children who are deprived of parental affection and nurturance are at risk of developing avoidant personality disorder. [7]  

When understanding the causes of early maladaptive schemas and their origins in childhood, it is important to discuss inborn personality predispositions. A 2010 report discusses the connections between early maladaptive schemas and the dimensions of the five-factor model of personality (i.e. extraversion, neuroticism, openness to experience, agreeableness, and conscientiousness). [8]

1) Neuroticism signifies the overall propensity to suffer nasty emotions. 2) Extraversion pertains to great fondness for socializing and being active. 3) Openness is about your willingness to expose yourself to new ideas and experiences. 4) Benevolence, cooperativeness, self-modesty, and gentleness towards others are said to be the aspects of those scoring high in agreeableness. 5) Conscientiousness is about organization and goal-directedness. [8]

It was reported in 2010 that one-hundred forty seven adult outpatients participated in studies with the NEO PI-R (the personality inventory for assessing the Big Five traits), the SQ-SF (Schema Questionnaire-Short Form for assessing the 15 schemas proposed by Jeffery Young), and the BDI (Beck Depression Inventory of 21-item, self-rated scale for assessing depression symptoms). Further assessments revealed a considerable correlation between early maladaptive experiences and the Five-Factor model on personalities (FFM), with neuroticism being highlighted and EMS predicting symptoms of depression “above and beyond the FFM personality dimensions [8].”

As early maladaptive schemas are targeted in treating personality disorders and persistent characterological troubles, it is necessary to define them according to Jeffery Young (2003) as “a broad, pervasive theme or pattern, comprised of memories, emotions, cognitions, and bodily sensations, regarding oneself and one’s relationships with others, developed during childhood or adolescence, elaborated throughout one’s lifetime and dysfunctional to a significant degree.” They are promoted when we our primary psychological needs are unfulfilled, such as secure attachment, self-sufficiency, and liberty to communicate valid needs and emotions, etc. A child’s temperament is pertinent here, especially in the context of the child provoking aversive childrearing styles. Depression, anxiety, dysfunctional relationships, addiction, and psychosomatic disorders are a great risk in the context of early maladaptive schemas, according to Jeffery Young (1999). Poisonous coping styles can result from this, such as aggression, hostility, and counterattacks against others, dominance, excessive self-assertiveness, attention-seeking and status-seeking behaviors, manipulation, rebellion, passive-aggressiveness, obsessive orderliness, etc. can exist in one dimension. Excessive compliance, dependence, and surrender exist in a second dimension while addictive self-soothing and social withdrawal exist in the third dimension. There are many others [8].

Early maladaptive schemas are conceptualized as “trait-like,” meaning they are firmly fixed or not overturning throughout time [8].

So now, the Schema Questionnaire Short Form (SQ-SF) and the five-factor model of personality (FFM) become pertinent. The connections among FFM elements and psychopathology have been comprehensively researched. Assessments of statistics from multiple independent studies, for ascertaining global trends, have shown compelling links among the FFM and axis I and axis II disorders. Added to this are demonstrations that shared personality dimensions can explain co-occurring chronic diseases in the context of anxiety and depressive disorders [8].

Muris (2006) studied early maladaptive schemas in non-clinical adolescents and informed us that all EMS were considerably correlated with neuroticism. The belief that one must achieve very high standards of behavior and performance (called the unrelenting standards schema) was demonstrably connected to extraversion, agreeableness, openness, and conscientiousness. The inordinate focus on others’ needs instead of one’s own (called the self-sacrifice schema) was demonstrably connected to agreeableness. Inflated worries of calamity (called the vulnerability for harm schema) were related to openness. Neuroticism’s role is underscored in EMS. Sava (2009) correlated EMS with minimal agreeableness and elevated neuroticism in an undergraduate sample. As a caveat, their studies are imperfect because of non-clinical samples, and other studies have reported dissimilar findings. For instance, Reeves and Taylor (2007) observed borderline personality disorder symptoms not co-occurring with the enmeshment schema (emotional overinvolvement with others and lack of individual identity and inner direction). Therefore, we need to update our research on the connections between EMS and the FFM, that includes an adult clinical sample [8].

In conclusion, if you suffer with disturbances of personality caused by early maladaptive schemas, you now know how crucial it is to provide a good and safe environment for your children, so they aren’t set on the same dark path. You should be more wary of personality disorders creeping into your family’s life based on how you treat them.

About the author: Matthew is interested in discussing social psychology, neuroscience, anthropology, sociology, human biology and anatomy, mental health disorders, philosophy, the psychology of religion, and the history of religion. Matthew loves his friends, his family, and his dog named Sampson. You can contact Matthew at

Disclosure statement: I am not a licensed therapist nor doctor. My intention is to not pretend to be either. The information contained in this article is not meant to be accepted instead of a doctor or licensed therapist’s advice. All information contained herein is based on my interpretation of the books and articles I read. My hope and desire is that any troubled person reading this would feel encouraged to get help from a licensed practitioner.



[2] J. Crisp, Richard, N. Turner, Rhiannon, Essential Social Psychology, pg. 188, Publisher: SAGE Publications Ltd; Third edition (September 24, 2014). Print

[3] I. Riddle, Dorothy, Moving Beyond Duality: Enough for Us All, Volume Three, Publisher: iUniverse (December 11, 2015). Print.






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