We have seen that schemas help us remember information by organizing material into coherent representations. However, although schemas can improve our memories, they may also lead to cognitive biases. Using schemas may lead us to falsely remember things that never happened to us and to distort or misremember things that did. For one, schemas lead to the confirmation bias, which is thetendencyto verifyand confirm our existing memories rather than to challengeand disconfirm them. The confirmation bias occurs because once we have schemas, they influence how we seek out and interpret new information. The confirmation bias leads us to remember information that fits our schemas better than we remember information that disconfirms them (Stangor & McMillan, 1992), 1 a process that makes our stereotypes very difficult to change. And we ask questions in ways that confirm our schemas (Trope & Thompson, 1997). 2 If we think that a person is an extrovert, we might ask her about ways that she likes to have fun, thereby making it more likely that we will confirm our beliefs. In short, once we begin to believe in something—for instance, a stereotype about a group of people—it becomes very difficult to later convince us that these beliefs are not true; the beliefs become self-confirming.
Darley and Gross (1983) 3 demonstrated how schemas about social class could influence memory. In their research they gave participants a picture and some information about a fourth- grade girl named Hannah. To activate a schema about her social class, Hannah was pictured sitting in front of a nice suburban house for one-half of the participants and pictured in front of an impoverished house in an urban area for the other half. Then the participants watched a video that showed Hannah taking an intelligence test. As the test went on, Hannah got some of the questions right and some of them wrong, but the number of correct and incorrect answers was the same in both conditions. Then the participants were asked to remember how many questions Hannah got right and wrong. Demonstrating that stereotypes had influenced memory, the participants who thought that Hannah had come from an upper-class background remembered that she had gotten more correct answers than those who thought she was from a lower-class background.
Our reliance on schemas can also make it more difficult for us to “think outside the box.” Peter Wason (1960) 4 asked college students to determine the rule that was used to generate the numbers 2-4-6 by asking them to generate possible sequences and then telling them if those numbers followed the rule. The first guess that students made was usually “consecutive ascending even numbers,” and they then asked questions designed to confirm their hypothesis (“Does 102-104-106 fit?” “What about 404-406-408?”). Upon receiving information that those guesses did fit the rule, the students stated that the rule was “consecutive ascending even numbers.” But the students’ use of the confirmation bias led them to ask only about instances that confirmed their hypothesis, and not about those that would disconfirm it. They never bothered to ask whether 1-2-3 or 3-11-200 would fit, and if they had they would have learned that the rule was not “consecutive ascending even numbers,” but simply “any three ascending numbers.” Again, you can see that once we have a schema ( in this case a hypothesis), we continually retrieve that schema from memory rather than other relevant ones, leading us to act in ways that tend to confirm our beliefs.
Functional fixedness occurs when people’s schemas prevent them from using an object in new and nontraditional ways. Duncker (1945) 5 gave participants a candle, a box of thumbtacks, and a book of matches, and asked them to attach the candle to the wall so that it did not drip onto the table below (Figure 8.15). Few of the participants realized that the box could be tacked to the wall and used as a platform to hold the candle. The problem again is that our existing memories are powerful, and they bias the way we think about new information. Because the participants were “fixated” on the box’s normal function of holding thumbtacks, they could not see its alternative use.