The War of the Ghosts experiment-schema theory in psychology

The War of the Ghosts experiment-schema theory in psychology

It is no surprise that your brain is a manipulative criminal! The War of the Ghosts experiment was conducted in 1932 by a renowned psychologist Frederic Bartlett at Cambridge University. The conclusion can probably coffin any witnesses' statements in a court of law!

What is this experiment?

Bartlett's experiment laid the concept of schema theory in psychology. Before shedding light on this concept, let me describe the experiment in brief.

The War of the Ghosts is a Native American folklore that was read out to participants of the experiment. The story was read out twice. Fifteen minutes later, they were asked to recall the story by writing down on the paper. The recollection was done not once but several times at increasing time intervals. Surprisingly, in one case, recollection was also done after 10 years!

You can read the folklore here. It is short. 

What was the conclusion?

The result was not far from expected. The story was not accurate, as everything could not be remembered. It was more like a summarised form of the original story. We do know that we cannot remember every little detail. We can summarise what we see and feel.

The question that bothers us now is,

Did the core of the story remain the same?

This is where the schema theory comes in. Bartlett witnessed that the stories were spun to suit their rational beliefs and prejudices. He noted that significant changes were made to their stories in their first recollections. The subsequent recollections led to the progressive omission of details. What this means is, the first spun up story acted as the base on which to recollect.

The participants in the story replaced "hunting seals" with "fishing", "canoes" with "boats", and so on. In one instance, the participant himself declared that the ghosts in the story were just the name of a clan. We can call this interpretation. 

The original lines in the story read, 

"When the sun rose, he fell down. Something black came out of his mouth. His face became contorted."

One of the participants recollected,

"When the sun rose, he fell down. And he gave a cry, and as he opened his mouth, a black thing rushed from it."

The story never mentioned the man giving a cry. "Something black" becomes "a black thing". After several recollections, "a black thing" becomes "a spirit".

Participants removed those elements that were inexplicable or tweaked them in a way to sound more rational and sensible. They twisted the story according to their own schema.

What is the schema theory in psychology?

Schema is a set of preconceived beliefs that dictate how we take in or assimilate new information. The participants had their own set of beliefs. If hunting seals sounds bizarre to you, you are likely to substitute seals with fishes. 

However, this is not the case when hunting seals become an important matter of the story. What the experiment proves is that the irrational and seemingly less important details are more likely to be twisted under the influence of schema.

Schema actually renders our brains in the auto-pilot mode. It is vital to grasp information from the environment as quickly as possible. For instance, you may see a gharial for the first time. However, your schema projects an image of a crocodile, which helps you grasp what you just saw. 

Can you trust the witnesses in a court? I will leave up to you to answer.

Why is the schema theory in psychology so important?

If you are wondering why you do what you do, you have got your answer. Why do you feel that the job of a woman should be to care for your kids and manage your house, while it is your job to be a breadwinner? Why do you feel that this is not the right time to venture into a new business or start one? Why do you believe that your good deeds will always bring good results? Why do you believe that money is the root cause of all evils? 

The list is endless. The schema in itself is not a curse. It becomes a curse when you possess schemas that limit you. In simple words, you can call them limiting beliefs. One of your biggest schemas in life is waiting for a miracle to happen before you start living a life you imagined for yourself! This is why your brain is also a criminal, acting against you. 

How to change your schema?

You cannot change your schemas at a conscious level. Beliefs are craftsmanship of your subconscious mind. You can either influence your schema by repeated priming effect or change your schema completely, realizing how self-sabotaging your schema actually is.

Again, the most important thing is that you need to have an open mind. I have already elaborated on the cause of the Black Death of Childbed. The doctors were regarded as gentlemen who could never become the cause of death. If you are too narrow-minded, you will stick to your schema and be like those doctors! 

Do you know that you can use schema to fill yourself with positivity? 

Don't worry, you will find out.

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