Schema Your Head Off!

Donald Trump is not your typical presidential candidate. Well, no duh, right? He is running a very unusual campaign: no advertising, lots of large-scale rallies, few endorsements, violence. In short, none of the usual rules for presidential campaigns apply this year, or at least they don’t apply to Donald Trump. These descriptions have become the conventional wisdom of the day.


Yeah, this feels right

The Obama administration is allowing boys unfettered access to girl’s bathrooms and locker-rooms! Any man who claims to be a woman can go into the women’s bathroom with your daughters and wives! Hysterical wingnut-types are hysterically screaming their hysterical heads off! But, these claims often strike people as being common sensical.

I had transgressed the unwritten law.

Societies have developed unwritten rules that guide our behavior and expectations. We know how to behave together in a group, unless you are a conservative and then there are certain people who shouldn’t have wedding cakes or flower arrangements or use the stall next to yours. So, what laws have Donald Trump and transgender people transgressed?

  • Presidential candidates release their tax returns (at least since the 1970’s with Tricky Dick and Ford and the Ethics in Government Act of 1978).
  • Boys use the boys’ room and girls use the girls’ room (common sense according to those who seem to have little).
  • Presidential candidates don’t use obscenities during their campaign speeches.
  • Everyone is born with a clear cut obvious gender based on their genitalia (science fact: they are not, but someone who has the proper hormone structure cannot be raised as the opposite sex, see the unfortunate case of David Reimer).
  • Presidential candidates don’t incite violence and explicitly sow racism.

Where did these rules come from? How do we know they exist? How do they change? What does it all mean?

Schema Theory

Lucky for us Fredric Bartlett developed schema theory to help us understand these issues. Schema? Schema? What?

Simply put, schema theory states that all knowledge is organized into units. Within these units of knowledge, or schemata, is stored information. A schema, then, is a generalized description or a conceptual system for understanding knowledge – how knowledge is represented and how it is used

Schema Theory

Your Drunk Uncle

Knowledge units? A conceptual system for understanding knowledge? What is all this nonsense? shouts your drunk uncle. This is just “scientists” trying to confuse us so that they can sneak their gay commie agenda past us! he continues bordering on drunken hysteria. A boy is a boy. I know this cause he has a penis! Presidential candidates lie and “promise” to get elected and then do whatever the hell they want! I know these things! Yes sir, he does. He knows them because of schemata.

When your favorite drunk uncle begins slurring these objections at you, you can show him these examples and ask him why they seem to be faces.

No you’re not drunk, not like your favorite uncle, or if you are, it ain’t the reason you’re seeing faces in common everyday objects. You’re seeing them because we have a rule: two dots over a line make a face. Faces are a knowledge unit, a schema. We use that schema to interpret our world and this leads us to recognize objects that aren’t faces as faces.

So what, your uncle now confused by your examples and unexpected tack, responds. These are faces because they LOOK like faces! Everybody knows that! We don’t need no damned “scientist” telling us what everybody already knows! your drunk uncle says becoming increasingly hysterical as your mother glares and your dad looks on worriedly.

We have rules for our examples, presidential candidates and boys and girls, too. If you ask your drunk uncle about what makes a presidential candidate presidential, he probably won’t be able to answer. The qualities of a presidential candidate can be quite ephemeral. Should they be tall? Can they have facial hair? How old should they be — other than the Constitutionally imposed minimum of 35?

What about boys and girls? Their genitals must match their gender. Boys have penises, and girls have vaginas. We all carry this basic definition. But what else? Girls should be girly — frilly clothes, mothering, nice, etc. Boys should be tough and play sports, compete, and stuff, right? But, we all know people who do not fit those stereotypes.

What do we do when people violate these unwritten rules? We make fun of them, by George! We pick on them! We reject them! Schemata violation is the basis of bullying and ostracization. People who are different that is to say people who violate the rules or violate our schema are fair game.

Labels and Such

What do we do when we don’t know what to do? We look for environmental cues to guide us. Read the following passage and try to identify the thing being described:

The procedure is actually quite simple. First you arrange things into different groups. Of course, one pile may be sufficient depending on how much there is to do. If you have to go somewhere else due to lack of facilities that is the next step, otherwise you are pretty well set. It is important not to overdo things. That is, it is better to do too few things at once than too many. In the short run this may not seem important but complications can easily arise. A mistake can be expensive as well. At first the whole procedure will seem complicated.

Soon, however, it will become just another facet of life. It is difficult to foresee any end to the necessity for this task in the immediate future, but then one never can tell, After the procedure is completed one arranges the materials into different groups again. Then they can be put into their appropriate places. Eventually they will be used once more and the whole cycle will then have to be repeated. However, that is part of life.

My Favorite Experiments: Bransford and Johnson

The answer will appear after the article. List guesses in the comments, if you will, please.

Great Jack, that’s just damn weird. What does that prove? Well, it shows that titles make things easier to recognize. In the study by Bransford & Johnson, they compared three groups. One group received the reading with a title identifying the process. The second group had the title identifying the process after the reading. And the third group did not have a title at all. They asked the participants to retell the process. The ones with the title did best, the ones with the title after were in the middle, and the ones with no title did the worst. Giving a title helps us match the information in our environment to the appropriate schema. In other words, calling a boy a boy helps everyone identify him as a boy.



Say Doc, want your palm red?

Schema is also used to predict. Once you recognize that you are in a social situation — like a bathroom — you rely on past experience and culture to help you predict what will happen next. Seeing a woman in the lady’s room causes you to assume, she’s a woman and not care whether underneath the carefully coiffed hair, the precisely applied make-up, and expensive manicure, she has a penis swinging between her legs. She’s going in the next empty stall and doing her business, and no one will ever suspect a thing!

When someone runs for president, they should act presidential. They should be dignified. They should be smart. They should know the names of foreign leaders and where countries are. They should know about the economy and policy and stuff. They should uphold the values of the culture and laws of the nation. We predict that our candidates will meet these standards, and we judge them by how close they come to meeting these standards.

What do we do when someone doesn’t meet these standards? Typically, the electorate would stop supporting them — anyone remember Herman Cain, Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann? — and the candidate would eventually drop out of the race. But, Donald Trump has not acted so very presidential.



Donald has read it!

Donald Trump has been deemed unpredictable. Throughout the campaign, the pundits have predicted his demise because he didn’t meet expectations. The conventional wisdom says that no one can win the nomination unless he or she follows the “rules.” Trump has proven them wrong.

Trump has surprised the hell out of a lot of people, namely Jeb! Lil Marco, and Lyin’ Ted. We are surprised by new, novel, shiny things because if you don’t know what it is, it may be dangerous (think hunter-gathers out on the savannah). We pay attention to things that surprise us; they might kill us. Donald Trump surprises us, therefore, we pay attention to him, and he might very well kill us all if he becomes president.

Surprise often leads to laughter and bemusement. Something similar can be happening with our reaction to Donald Trump. Because he has just enough of the hallmarks of success, we may not be fearful of him but amused by him instead.

Of course, those who know or pretend to know how damaging a presidency of someone like Trump could be, are not bemused but concerned. Thus, we have the stop Trump movement and all sorts of gyrations and consternation and pee-pee dancing by the establishment around his candidacy.

There are other psychological reasons that people may be supporting Trump, but they are for another article.

Surprise works in Trump’s favor, but it works against transgender people in the bathrooms. It’s as if the wingnuts have just cottoned to (a) there are transgendered people out there, and (b) they use the bathrooms. And, as always, it was fine for transgendered people to use the bathrooms until the wingnuts realized it was happening. As long as they were in denial, everything was fine. But, show them one transgendered soldier or high school student longing not to be bullied, abused, and beaten for using the toilet and all hell breaks lose.

The problem is that gender schema is much more deeply engrained: small children as young as two or three will articulate sex roles and object when they are violated. Schemata that is so deeply engrained and fundamental are much more difficult to change.

What we are seeing is that people who have difficulty with change, i.e. conservatives, are having difficulty accepting changes to our social schemata. Just as when someone acts weird — breaking schema-based social rules and consequently being unpredictable — we make fun of them and essentially drive them out of our social circles, conservatives are reacting similarly.



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