Key Study: Schema Theory & the Superwoman Self-schema

Travis DixonCognitive Psychology, Key Studies

The African American Superwoman schema is an interesting example of self-schema.

Schema theory is one of the most important theories in cognitive psychology, but it can also be one of the more difficult theories to understand. The best way, I’ve found, to understand schema theory is to look at as many real-life examples as possible. In this post, we’ll look at a fascinating example – the AfricanAmerican Superwoman self-schema.

A schema is a collection of related pieces of information, knowledge or memory. According to schema theory (read full summary here or watch the video) there are different types of schemas, including script schemas (what to do in particular situations) and self-schemas: a collection of ideas and thoughts about how we view ourselves.

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A specific self-schema that has been studied is the Superwoman Schema (SWS). This self-schema is common in African American woman and has its origins in the perceived Strong Black Woman Role. Academics believe the image of the strong black woman has emerged as a response to negative characterizations of African American women in American media and society in general. For example, as “Jezebels,” “Welfare Queens” or “Mammy’s” (Woods-Giscombé, 2010).

Our self-schemas have a big influence on our lives, including on our physical and psychological health. This is because how you think directly impacts how you feel and act. African American women experience comparatively higher rates of health issues compared to other Americans. For example, they are more at risk for developed cardiovascular disease, obesity, have adverse birth outcomes and untreated psychological conditions. The reasons for these differences could be based on how they perceive and cope with stress (Woods-Giscombé, 2010). This is where the Superwoman schema could play a role: if African American women belief they need to be strong and to not show weakness, they might not seek help from health or psychological professionals. It might also cause distress and an inability to properly deal with stress, leading to chronic stress. Chronic stress is a risk factor for such health issues as heart disease and obesity, as well as psychological disorders including depression.

An abundance of research shows that when it comes to coping with stress, there are two common types of dealing with stress: active coping vs avoidance coping. Active coping means you deal with your stress and try to work through the things that are making you stressed. Avoidance coping is the opposite: you try to escape your stress and do things so as to avoid dealing with it. Not surprisingly, the general finding in health psychology is that those who have an active coping strategy tend to have better health outcomes than those who avoid. This could be how the SWS is linked with the physical and mental health of African American women – they believe they need to show strength and independence so they avoid coping with their own stress. They might even put the well-being of others first, thus never confronting their own sources of stress.

To get a deeper understanding of SW, it’s relationship to health and its effects on African American woman, Cheryle Woods-Giscombé conducted qualitative focus group interviews to understand the SWS and its relationship to health.

Key Study: Superwoman Schema (Woods-Giscombé, 2010)


  • 8 x focus group interviews
  • 48 African women from the SouthEast of the US
  • the participants were from a range of ages (19-72, average 29 years old) and educational backgrounds.
  • Focus groups were conducted in homogenous groups (similar in age and educational background) so participants shared similar life experiences.
  • Specific questions were asked for each group. There were some questions about stress, including what caused the participants stress in their life and how they cope.
    • Questions were also asked about the SWS, including:
      • Have you ever heard the term Strong Black Woman/Black Superwoman?
      • What is a Strong Black Woman/Black Superwoman?
      • What are her characteristics?
      • How did they develop?
      • Is being a Strong Black Woman/Black Superwoman a good thing?
      • Is there anything bad about being a Strong Black Woman/Black Superwoman?


  • From the analysis of the focus group interviews, the researcher was able to develop a conceptual framework for the Superwoman Schema. This included its:
    • characteristics
    • contributing factors
    • the potential benefits and risks of having this schema.

The Superwoman Schema Conceptual Framework (Woods-Giscombé, 2010)


  • It seemed that having this self-schema was a source of pride and strength but also irritation for some women. One woman said, “You have to be strong. . . . Society makes you have to be a strong woman. People in relationships make you have to be a strong woman. Our past makes us have to be a strong woman and it’s really annoying as hell.”
  • Three major benefits of the SWS were discussed in the groups, including how it gave them a source of personal strength to survive and succeed in work and society in general. It also influences their willingness to work hard for their family and others in their communities.
  • Participants discussed a range of health issues including migraines, hair loss, panic attacks, weight gain, and depression.
  • One woman how the Superwoman role contributed to sleep problems by saying “I still have issues with not getting enough sleep when I’m stressed. ‘Cause I feel like, while I’m asleep I could be doing this, this, and this.”

Conclusions and Applications:

  • Schema theory: We can use this study as a specific example of a self-schema, including its characteristics, how it develops and its potential effects on our thinking, health and behaviour.
  • There are pros and cons of possessing the SWS. On the one hand, it might help African American women by giving them an internal source of strength and motivation. However, it can have negative influences on personal health and stress coping.
  • The perceived need for exhibiting stress and self-reliance could put African American women at risk of developing depression and other health-related problems. This is because it can cause stress and psychological distress. For instance, if a woman is struggling and experiencing a lot of stress she might feel like she has to be strong, avoid coping with her own problems and put the needs of others first. As a long-term coping strategy to stress, this could be ineffective and only make their feelings of psychological distress even worse. Chronic stress (ongoing, long-term stress) is a risk factor for depression, heart disease and even obesity.

If you’re interested, I highly recommend reading the full article by Cheryl L. Woods-Giscombé, Superwoman Schema: African American Women’s Views on Stress, Strength and Health.

Critical Thinking Considerations

  • The results gathered in this study are from a focus group interview. What are the limitations of using a focus group interview? How might they affect the credibility and/or transferability of these findings?
  • How does this study highlight the benefits of schema theory?
  • The findings of this study could be used to explain disproportionately high rates of physical and psychological health problems experienced by African American women. But what are the limitations of using these findings to explain specific issues like depression, cardiovascular disease (heart disease) and obesity?


  • Woods-Giscombé C. L. (2010). Superwoman schema: African American women’s views on stress, strength, and health. Qualitative health research20(5), 668–683. (Link)