Schemas and Stories

In everyday life, people rely on cognitive models, maps or schemas of how the world works, to organize their perception of events and determine how to act. These models make up much of the structure of the unconscious mind, on which our conscious thinking and decisions are based. They tell us what everyday objects are; how to identify situations; the kinds of people and roles we encounter, and the roles we are expected to perform. In the largest sense, these are models of the physical, social and psychological world we live in, and our place in it, as physical and psychological beings and members of society.*

As we go about the business of everyday life, we identify each situation by seeing which of these schemas it fits into. One might say we are perpetually creating a second, more specific kind of schema of individual events and how they relate to the more general model. We have a schema for what a politician who is evading answering questions looks like and when we see something that fits it well enough, we create an implicit model in our minds of the specific event as an instance of a politician in cover-up mode. There are undoubtedly instances in which we tack back and forth between the specific instance and the general model, when we are unsure what we are perceiving, to see how the former fits the latter. But, more commonly, the process of identification, of fitting the particular into the general model, is automatic and instantaneous.

When we speak or write about events or refer to them in other ways, with an audience in mind, we also convey another model of events, in which the particular aspect of the world we refer to is portrayed as a specific instance of some more general situation. This model we convey may or may not correspond to the models in our mind, given that what we think and what we tell others about what we think may be very different. Thus, in seeing a politician evading questions, we may see it as an example of the dishonesty of politicians or local politicians or politicians of a particular party. But if we know the person or work for him, then in speaking about what we observed to other people, we may be careful to hide these negative judgments, for fear of compromising our relationship and we thus, end up, conveying a model of what happened that doesn't exactly correspond to the model of events as we represent them to ourselves.

We can analyze these models of events as they are manifest in all human communications: in everyday conversation, in gestures, in literature, in news, in forms of political rhetoric such as speeches, press releases and answers to interview questions. Among their features, we will find that a great many, at least, are constructed as stories and thus manifest the basic elements of all stories: plot, conflict, characterization, setting, and theme. These, after all, are basic elements of our world, which is made up of people (and other beings with will), situated in time and space, who manifest certain behaviors and character types as they deal with conflicts and obstacles, in the quest for certain goals. But, the plot and characterization we find in most communications doesn't reflect the complexity of people and events that we know to exist. More often, when we communicate, plot, characterization, et al, are tailored to fit the purposes of the communication and the communicator. In this they are much like good literature, in which characterization and plot are highly selective, so they will support the larger meanings of the narrative.

In most communications, of course, we don’t find coherent stories with a beginning and end, and a cast of characters who are introduced and get their just deserts. Rather, we encounter bits and pieces of stories - a remark here, a gesture there, which take their meaning from the larger stories of our lives to which they refer back. We also find far more organized and carefully constructed narratives, including various forms of art and entertainment; news stories; many forms of political rhetoric, instruction manuals, and so on. In theory, if I can adapt an idea that underlies the work of the theorist of literature Northrop Frye, all these stories can be put together into the one grand narrative of life and human life, the ultimate model of how we portray the world, of which all our private plots, character traits and so on, are bits and pieces, fragments of a larger whole.

In analyzing these narratives, this book is interested in the cognitive models that underlie them. Here, it pays attention to the filtering process by which cognitive models in the unconscious mind of communicators get turned into models that are part of the conscious mind, and into models that are explicitly and implicitly conveyed in narratives of communications. In studying this filtering process, it is concerned with what is added, left out, altered and disguised.

It thus looks at models that are unconscious; models that manifest in consciousness in altered form and models that the person manifests in behavior. Since there are two or more interactants, with unconscious, conscious and expressed models, interacting with each other in complex ways, things quickly get complicated.

When we examine these communications, looking for the model they convey or, putting it in Goffmanian terms, the image they construct, we typically find that there are two different ways of portraying things, which are being manifested at the same time. First, the communicator will portray whatever the subject of the communication is - a lecture about farming portrays certain aspects of farming, a conversation about the next-door neighbor, portrays the next door neighbor and so on. But simultaneously, the communicator will also portray both him or herself, the communication itself, and the audience he is communicating to. He may do this by explicitly referring to himself, the communication and the audience, turning these into the subject of his communication. For example, when someone says, "Of course, you can believe what I am about to tell you," or "Maybe that wasn't entirely clear," or "I would never do it the way they did it, of course," - he is portraying himself, the communication and/or the audience or presenting a model of them - just as he presents models of everything and everyone else in his communications. And this model of the self, the communication and the audience, are also organized according to selected attributes of plot, characterization, setting, and theme.

But communicators also portray themselves, the communication and the audience not only in the explicit content of the communication, but also implicitly, in ways that are implied by the communication, but not directly stated. To use a common sense example, a lecture given in English using terms known mostly to physicists, also paints a picture of the lecturer and audience - of their language use, interest and expertise, of the lecturer as a kind of person who can stick to a subject, refer to relevant issues, and of audience members as having the maturity to attend to complex ideas without growing impatient. The lecturer may also note, in passing, that the next section of the speech is particularly complex but that most members of the audience will be able to follow it, using information provided in the previous lecture, upon which he is now explicitly portraying -- or conveying a model or image of -- the communication and the audience, which is about some of the same things that the less direct communication was about.

All of these communications, whether explicit or implicit, convey two kinds of information that make up all narrative elements of plot and characterization. First, they convey information about what it is that happened or that exists or will happen. This is the realm of relatively straight information - the who, what, when, where and how of "description." But secondly, they convey value judgments about all this - is it good or bad, competent or incompetent, relevant or irrelevant. As this theory describes elsewhere, this involves locating what is described on a value grid that is an essential component of our cognitive schemas and of the emotions with which we invest them. As also noted previously, the value grids are organized, in part, according to binary oppositions of the kind just listed. In the model that is offered here, valued elements are put on the left and negatively valued elements on the right, so beautiful goes on the left and ugly on the right; articulate on the left, inarticulate on the right, and so on. When we make a value judgment, we "locate" what we refer to, on the grid.

These value grids, and the narratives about the world that they infuse with significance, make up much of the underlying moral and cultural order of society, that is the cognitive foundation of social perception, motivation, communication, interaction and shared symbolism. In short, our minds are made up of schemas, organized into stories, in which the elements are invested with value and emotion,** which are about who we are essentially as people. A collection of minds, with similarities in these schemas, is part of what makes up cultures and subcultures.

By analyzing communication, we can discover and, ultimately, describe the underlying forms of narrative and value judgment, that are the basis of human life. And we can tack back and forth, to reveal how the underlying narrative and values judgments are expressed in and give meaning to, specific communications, and how these, in turn, modify the underlying narrative and value grid over time.

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*Some sociologists have referred to these as stocks of knowledge, a term which is appealing because it is so vague and doesn't imply that we know things about how this cognitive world is organized. Nevertheless, I've chosen to use the terms schemas or models, to convey the fact that these are highly organized structures of information.

** In reference to the sentence: "In short, our minds are made up of schemas, organized into stories, in which the elements are invested with value and emotion." Understanding the connection between the stories, values, and emotional and psychodynamic reactions is essential to understanding human behavior and motivation.

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