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Cognitive Schemas & The Categorical Approach

Cognitive Schemas & The Categorical Approach

Many people have preconceived notions about phenomena in their surroundings. It is usually a way to relate to one’s environment and make sense of things. In essence, these preconceived notions lead to creating specific profiles that help identify characters and behaviors. Notably, cognitive schema facilitates the categorical approach because it presents pre-existing knowledge about issues, thereby making it easy to relate events to such information.

Cognitive schema makes it possible for the categorical approach to be applied more naturally. Moreover, since it entails mental structures that an individual can use to organize knowledge and guide behaviors, it can influence the categorical classification process (Landau et al., 2010). Accordingly, it is especially practical in explaining specific types of behaviour such as mental disorders. This is because it enables a person to observe a particular set of symptoms and then relate them to specific conditions.

It is important to note that schema is usually preconceived notions about someone or something (Landau et al., 2010). For example, when a person interacts within a social setting, there are usually specific behaviors or actions that they are supposed to undertake to fit into the occasion. An example of this might be paying attention and being respectful while on a romantic date. These are normally preconditioned actions that society would expect in this situation. Thus, actions or behaviors that are against the expected norms may be seen as uncommon or abnormal.  The categorical approach uses this notion to explain issues, particularly mental disorders.

The schema theory entails the idea that a person builds their information portfolio based on available knowledge and exposure to new information (Phillips & Wilson, 2016). Notably, such phenomena influence a person to look at things and judge them accordingly (Phillips & Wilson, 2016). For instance, one can have preconceived ideas about the profile of a murderer. The profile might include aggressive behavior, hostility, and drug use. In this situation, a person that matches such characteristics may be considered a murderer, even if they are not. It is theoretically possible that this person might have a mental condition that the person would not be aware of. Nevertheless, from this observation alone, the categorical approach becomes more natural because it entails specific information. However, one has to link it to a specific practical situation to make sense of the behaviour and categorize it accordingly – even if it may be improper, invalid, or subject to prejudice and bias (Tuckey & Brewer, 2003).

Cognitive schemas allow the creation of whole pictures using partial information, facilitating the categorization of events and personalities (Hofmann, 2014). In essence, one may have information about depressive disorders, including its’ signs and symptoms and their impact on one’s mental health. With this information, a person with such symptoms may consider themselves to have depression even without a diagnosis. Similarly, observing a person who exhibits signs of depression may also be regarded as having depression based only on partial information (Hofmann, 2014). This categorical description of their mental health conditions is based on the categorical approach because one relates it to prior information.

Cognitive schemas facilitate the use of the categorical approach in psychiatric assessment and diagnosis (Hofmann, 2014). Notably, specific mental health disorders have specific symptoms and signs that experts use to diagnose patients and advise them accordingly (Hofmann, 2014). For example, a set of conditions may point to a specific disorder, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (AD/HD). However, a psychiatrist may not need to conduct tests to ascertain certain types of conditions as present because the symptoms a patient presents with can be easily linked to specific criteria. That is, the psychiatrist can categorically identify the condition. The DSM-IV classification manual is usually the most common categorical identifier for mental health conditions (Hofmann, 2014). Psychologists and other experts refer to this manual when identifying mental health problems in their patients. In this regard, one can identify their patient’s problems quicker and commence treatment and management sooner.

Cognitive schemas facilitate the creation of information on issues to make the categorical approach more effective. Experts bring together information regarding a specific phenomenon to create a whole entity that they can use for future reference to characters, behaviors, and actions. Thus, when a person does something related to the information set, it is easier to understand their behavior and take necessary action. On this note, when information arises, it is easier to integrate it into existing knowledge. Of course, it is also easier to distinguish whether this new information is irrelevant and ignore it, thereby not adding it to their knowledge base.

However, a significant problem can often arise. This process can also lead to stereotyping because one has preconceived notions about specific issues. For example, terrorists have specific profiles, including their language, places of origin, dress codes, and religion. A person that matches such descriptions tends to attract attention from law enforcement agencies. Moreover, they may be followed to monitor their movements and might also face random harassment due to these preconceived notions. Nevertheless, matching the descriptions may not necessarily mean that one is a terrorist. On this note, one can view that the categorical approach may be biased. Thus, it is essential to conduct the cognitive schema process selectively and with caution to avoid such adverse outcomes and categorizations.

To conclude, the cognitive schema allows applying the categorical approach because it presents pre-existing knowledge about issues, thereby making it easy to relate events to such information. One can retrieve this knowledge to help in identifying specific events in their surroundings. This is also a practice that is commonly used and practiced in psychiatric assessments. Order an Essay.


Hofmann, S.G. (2014). Toward a cognitive-behavioral classification system for mental disorders. Behavior Therapy, 45(4), 576-587. doi:10.1016/j.beth.2014.03.001

Landau, M.J., Meier, B.P., & Keefer, L.A. (2010). A metaphor-enriched social cognition. Psychological Bulletin, 136(6). doi:10.1037/a0020970

Phillips, S., & Wilson, W.H. (2016). Systematicity and a categorical theory of cognitive architecture: Universal construction in context. Frontiers in Psychology, 7. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2016.01139.

Tuckey, M., & Brewer, N. (2003). The influence of schemas, stimulus ambiguity, and interview schedule on eyewitness memory over time. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 9(2), 101-118. doi:10.1037/1076-898X.9.2.101


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By Hanna Robinson

Hanna has won numerous writing awards. She specializes in academic writing, copywriting, business plans and resumes. After graduating from the Comosun College's journalism program, she went on to work at community newspapers throughout Atlantic Canada, before embarking on her freelancing journey.

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