As an analogy, a schema could be considered to act as a ‘strange attractor’ for mental processing. A strange attractor is a term used in chaos theory to indicate how seemingly chaotic processes seek order. An analogy of a ‘strange attractor’ might be easily seen in a stream of water. As the water flows, each molecule of water is independent and random in its behavior. There is no ‘intelligence’ to water, although certain rules apply. For example, water will seek the lowest level possible. That rule helps to ‘order’ a complex system. In flowing water, one can notice that despite the independence and randomness of each molecule, that repeated patterns of flow will occur – around a rock – for example, eddies of water will appear and break up continuously – each occurrence both like and unlike the previous one.
A schema seems to organize various components of thinking and emotion around a theme learned through identification of random patterns of experience. As the person experiences, they identify patterns in experience and form beliefs, values, attitudes about these experiences. Somehow all of the various components of these beliefs, values and attitudes occur in similar, although not the same ways in the flow of the person’s life.
The fluidity of water and the fluidity of thinking is another interesting analogy. Hofstadter puts it this way:
…it is interesting to note that non-metaphorical fluidity – that is the fluidity of liquids like water – is inextricably tied to random microscopic actions. A liquid could not flow in the soft, gentle, fluid way that it does, were it not composed of tiny components whose micro-actions are completely random relative to one another. This does not, of course, imply that the top-level action of the fluid as a whole takes on any appearance of nonrandomness, quite the contrary! The flow of a liquid is one of the most nonrandom phenomena of nature that we are familiar with, This does not mean that it is by any means simple, it is simply familiar and natural-seeming. Fluidity is an emergent quality, and to simulate it accurately requires and underlying randomness.
The rule of gravity is the rule that ‘controls’ the ultimate nonrandomness of the flow of water. What controls the nonrandomness of thinking is not as apparent. We know that there are certain epigenetic rules that are in operation, such as the rules of association and pattern making which cause the neonate child to begin immediately comparing the second experience to the first, and the third to the first and second, thereby, leading to a model of the world or a theory of meaning. It might even be suggested that schema building itself is an extension of the pattern-building rule and leads to generalization of patterns to higher levels of abstraction.
How many levels of abstraction can fit on the head of a pin? The process of learning seems to be that the child experiences random events that s/he then orders by comparison and association into nonrandom order. S/he then groups one set of comparisons with another set of comparisons and generalizes these. Pattern identification through comparison is followed by judgements about utility. Again, we use the most basic definition of utility – that utility is the pursuit of pleasure or the avoidance of pain.
Thus, one characteristic of the experience that is compared is the ranking on a scale from extreme pain to extreme pleasure. It should be noted that while these are identified as polar opposites, they are not really. In this chaotic world, some people experience pleasure in pain and vice versus. The seeming paradox is the mixture of two orders of the experience, first there is perhaps, the occurrence of the stimuli that might be labeled as pleasurable or painful by the culture and second there is the labeling as done by the individual. Thus an individual may experience the event as the opposite.
Such an independent process might be illustrated by the action of some people who have been so invalidated and psychotraumatized that they experience life as extremely stressful and the experience of pain takes their mind off the experience of constant stress, thereby, providing relief, a pleasurable experience.
If this sounds convoluted, it is. However, this is exactly how individuals develop and use maladaptive schema. The way they think about the world [particularly themselves and other people] creates expectancies about what will happen in the world, and then a self-fulfilling prophecy occurs in which they act upon their expectations and bring them to fruition, which reinforces the original beliefs. To a large extent, what you expect to happen, will.
When a maladaptive schema brings the thought/emotion process every back to the consideration of how awful life is, we experience a never ending series of confirmations of how awful life is. The glass is half empty. The good news is that if we can change our expectations so that we expect to achieve success and happiness, this also becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy that is likely to occur. The glass is half full.
In fact, a maladaptive schema can be thought of as a ‘half empty glass’ attitude. If our attitude towards life or a particular facet of life is negative, the attitude or schema causes us to organize our thought/emotion to reflect that attitude. We casually, but rightfully, say that such people need an ‘attitude adjustment’
The problem is how to change our perspective or attitude. Three factors come into play in this process. The first two self & others, particular significant others are the actors, and the third, messages, are the means of interacting. While most of cognitive behavior management concerns have been focused on the messages that one gives to oneself, this is not always sufficient to change a perspective that is embedded in the fabric of nonquality living. When the people around us, particularly those who are significant to our way of looking at ourselves, have a negative outlook, the messages that are sent have a profound impact.
A four year old who says “you are fat, ugly, etc.” does not usually generate the same impact as when a loved one does so, even though the four year old may reinforce old distressing thought/emotion about oneself.
The ability to send balanced and rational messages is a skill.
The ability to use social reinforcers to change behavior is a skill possessed by very few people, and one that is somewhat analogous to skill in using the English language. Everyone does it hundreds of times each day, but few of us do it well.
It is very important to understand that while we might not use reinforcement well, we use it very effectively. The difference between well and effective is concerned with impact, not process. We all effectively reinforce behavior every day – we do poorly in effectively reinforcing only those thoughts, emotions and behaviors that create highly adaptive and creative people.
Most people do not reinforce distorted or maladaptive thoughts, emotions and behaviors deliberately, but do so without understanding. In fact, parent, teachers and other child managers often reinforce the very thought, emotion and behavior they intend to abolish. This is so because they do not understand the power of their own messages and because ninety-five [95%] of everything we do is nonconscious based upon our own thoughts, emotions, beliefs, attitudes and schema.