Schemas, Assumptions, and Beliefs, Oh My!
The term “schema” has been popular in cognitive-behavioral circles in recent years with theorists discussing the role of schemas in a range of disorders, researchers studying schemas, and clinicians proposing a range of interventions for modifying problematic schemas. The terms “schema”, “core belief”, “irrational belief”, “underlying assumption”, “dysfunctional belief”, etc. have sometimes been used interchangeably and at other times, distinctions have been drawn between these closely related terms. In the hopes of making this a bit less confusing, here’s the way I’d propose defining these terms:
Core Beliefs – Unconditional beliefs that serve as a basis for screening, categorizing, and interpreting experiences. For example, “I’m no good.” “Others can’t be trusted.” “Effort does not pay off.” These often operate outside of the individual’s awareness and often are not clearly verbalized.
Underlying Assumptions (or Dysfunctional Beliefs) – Conditional beliefs that shape one’s response to experiences and situations. For example, “If someone gets close to me, they will discover the ‘real me’ and reject me.” These may operate outside of the individual’s awareness and may not be clearly verbalized or the individual may be aware of these assumptions.
Interpersonal Strategies – Underlying assumptions that focus specifically on ways of influencing others. For example, “The way to get children to be good is to punish them for being bad.” “If I want someone to like me, I must be nice to them.” Often the individual is aware of these assumptions or finds them fairly easy to recognize.
Irrational Beliefs – This is a term popularized by Rational Emotive Therapy (now Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy), not Cognitive Therapy. Our view is that the important thing is the effect that the belief has in the individual’s life (i.e. is it functional or dysfunctional), not whether the belief is rational or not. For example, many people see the interpersonal strategy “If I want someone to like me, I should be nice to them” as rational. However, this strategy can prove to be dysfunctional unless it is paired with beliefs that support appropriate assertion and limit-setting.
Automatic Thoughts – The cognitions that spontaneously flow through one’s mind in the moment. For example, “Oh My God! Now I’m in big trouble.” Individuals may or may not be aware of their automatic thoughts but most people can learn to be aware of their automatic thoughts fairly easily.
You may notice that the list above doesn’t include “schema.” There is a problem with the way “schema” is used in CBT. Often the term “schema” is used as though it is synonymous with “core belief”. However, “schema” had an established meaning in psychology long before it became popular in cognitive-behavioral circles. Beck (1967) gives Piaget (1948) credit for introducing the concept of schema to psychology and Piaget defined a schema as a set of linked mental representations of the world, which we use both to understand and to respond to situations. A good contemporary definition of schema can be found in Wikipedia “In psychology and cognitive science, a schema (plural schemata or schemas), describes an organized pattern of thought or behavior. It can also be described as a mental structure of preconceived ideas, a framework representing some aspect of the world, or a system of organizing and perceiving new information. Schemata influence attention and the absorption of new knowledge: people are more likely to notice things that fit into their schema, while re-interpreting contradictions to the schema as exceptions or distorting them to fit. Schemata have a tendency to remain unchanged, even in the face of contradictory information. Schemas can help in understanding the world. Most situations do not require effortful thought when using schema, since automatic thought is all that is required. People can organize new perceptions into schemas quickly.”
Note that “schema” is not the same as “core belief.” Aaron Beck and I tried to explain the concept in this way:
Many misperceptions and misinterpretations result from the effects of schemas, cognitive structures containing the individual’s basic beliefs and assumptions, which shape the individuals’ perceptions of events and their responses to them. Humans do not “start from scratch” in perceiving and interpreting each event or situation they encounter. For example, when an individual encounters a large quadruped covered with shaggy hair, he or she can easily classify it as a dog and interpret its wagging tail as indicative of benign intentions even if he or she has not previously encountered a Briard (a French breed of sheep dog) and has never seen a dog which looks quite like this one. This is because the individual has retained a set of related concepts regarding the characteristics which characterize dogs, important aspects of canine behavior, and human-canine interaction. These concepts are automatically used in interpreting a relevant stimulus. This set of related concepts, termed a “schema”, is based on the individual’s previous experience with dogs, his or her observations of other persons’ experience with dogs, verbal and non-verbal communications from others regarding dogs, etc.
A given individual will have an assortment of schemas which are relevant to hairy quadrupeds but these are not simply applied randomly in perceiving our Briard. The context automatically influences the selection of schemas so that those which seem most likely to be relevant to the situation are tried first and a series of schemas are tried until a “good fit” is achieved. Thus, if the Briard is encountered at a dog show, the individual’s “dog schema” is likely to be applied first and the Briard is likely to be perceived correctly at once. If the Briard is encountered in a cage at the zoo, more exotic schemas are likely to be applied first and it is likely to take longer for the individual to correctly perceive it as a dog. If the Briard is encountered among a collection of rare breeds of sheep and goats, its size, shaggy coat, etc. may well result in its being misperceived as an unusual type of goat until it emits some behavior, such as barking, which is incompatible with the individual’s “goat schema.” As soon as the animal is correctly identified as an unfamiliar breed of dog, the individual automatically uses an assortment of generalizations about canine behavior to interpret the dog’s current behavior and to anticipate what the dog is likely to do in the future.
A schema is a stable network of core beliefs (“I’m no good”), conditional beliefs (“If people get close to me they’ll discover the “real me” and reject me”), interpersonal strategies (“I’ll put on a charming façade and hide all my faults and shortcomings”), as well as less obvious assumptions (Someone who loves me will know what I want and do it without my having to ask them” and “If he’s upset with with me, he’s rejecting me”). A core belief is just one component of a schema. Also, note that the core belief is not the only component of a schema that can be dysfunctional. At various points over the course of CBT with a particular client, we may work to modify core beliefs, conditional beliefs, interpersonal strategies, and/or other beliefs and assumptions. These are all aspects of schema change.
Unfortunately, when “schema” is treated as though it means the same thing as “core belief”, this is unnecessarily confusing. If CBT consistently used “core belief” to refer to specific core beliefs and used “schema” to refer to a relatively stable network of core beliefs, conditional assumptions, interpersonal strategies, and related cognitions, it would be easier for us to communicate clearly about this complex topic. Until then, when reading or talking about “schemas” it will be important to pay attention to whether the other party really means schema, belief, or something else.
Beck, A. T. (1967). Depression: Clinical, Experimental, and Theoretical Aspects. New York: Harper & Row. (Republished as Depressions: Causes and Treatment. Philadelphia: University or Pennsylvania Press, 1972.)
Piaget, J. (1948). The Moral Judgment of the Child. (M. Gabain, Trans.) Glencoe, IL: Free Press.
Pretzer, J.L. and Beck, A.T., A cognitive theory of personality disorders, In: Lenzenweger, M. F. & Clarkin, J. F. (Eds.), (2005), Major Theories of Personality Disorder, Second Edition, New York: Guilford.
Brain image available from Shutterstock.