Key Study: Schemas and Story Interpretations (Anderson et al., 1976)

Travis DixonCognitive Psychology, Key Studies, Studies and Theories

This study shows our experiences affect our interpretation of stories. Seems like common sense now but it was debated back in the 70s.

“No two people read the same novel or watch the same movie.” This is one of my favourite sayings as an English teacher. It conveys the simple fact that our interpretations of stories are based on our personalities, our experiences, our biases, our schemas. While this might be common knowledge now, in the 1970s it was being slowly revealed through a series of experiments. This blog explains one of those studies. 

Before we look at the study, let’s briefly recap two claims of schema theory. Firstly, when we hear stories our schemas help fill missing gaps. This is how we can take a simple sentence like “the man punted the ball” and picture it in our minds. However, the image might change depending on your experiences and memories that are stored in your schemas. If you pictured an NFL player, you’re probably North American and you’re thinking of a “punter.” You might have, however, pictured a rugby player because you’ve grown up using the word “punt” to refer to rugby (like me), or you might think of a soccer player for similar reasons. Perhaps you have only a vague image in your mind because you’re not really a sports person. This simple example shows how our prior knowledge, our schemas, help to fill the gaps when reading information.

A second important claim of schema theory is that schemas guide people towards interpreting stories in a particular way. They might guide with such force towards a particular perspective, that alternative interpretations aren’t even considered. Consider the following phrase:

  • Men aren’t women. 

This seems like a simple, uncontroversial statement. So why have people been banned from Twitter for posting it? Because we bring our experiences, our schema, to any text we read and we try to make inferences about what it means. Where information is lacking, we use our own schemas to fill in the blanks. Some people interpret this to mean a basic biological fact, whereas others view it as a hateful, transphobic sentiment. You might even be trying to analyze my language to figure out my stance on the matter (good luck to you). Our interpretation of this simple phrase is heavily guided by our schemas and many people struggle to conceive of alternative viewpoints.

It’s easy to see why social media divides people – it’s hard to convey complex viewpoints in short, written statements.

Schema theory’s claim that reading can be a top-down process was in response to some reading comprehension theories of the time that suggested reading comprehension happens from the bottom-up: we read the text and that enters our minds and we make sense of it. This alternative, top-down effect of schemas suggests that we use our minds to interpret the text on the page. Anderson and Pichert suggest that more important than the structure of a text itself, “…are the knowledge structures the reader brings to the text.”

One study of theirs, the home buyer/burglar study (1978), is often cited in support of schema theory, but personally I find it confusing and clunky. In digging around some old articles I found this doozy. It’s simple and straightforward and clearly demonstrates the effects of schemas. The central thesis in this study was that “…the meaning of a communication depends in a fundamental way on a person’s knowledge of the world and (their) analysis of the context as well as the characteristics of the message.” In other words, schemas influence our interpretation of stories.

IB Psychology students be warned: this is not a suitable study for the IA because it’s quasi-experimental – the researchers don’t manipulate the independent variable (the subject the students are studying). That being said, it could be modified to be suitable.

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Frameworks for Comprehending Discourse

(Anderson et al. 1976)

The aim of this quasi-experiment was to see how personal experiences and schemas influence interpretations of stories.


  • 60 participants: 30 female students studying for a career in music education, and 30 male physical education students from weight-lifting classes.
  • Two passages of about 150 words were given to the participants.
    • Passage 1: The Prison/Wrestling passage is written so most people think it’s about a person escaping from prison, but it can also be interpreted to be about someone escaping a wrestling move.
    • Passage 2: The Card/Music passage is written so most people think it’s about playing cards, but it could also be about playing musical instruments.
  • Ten multi-choice questions were asked after each passage. There were two correct answers out of the four options, one each for the different interpretations. (See below for the passages and the example questions).
  • Participants also completed a “free recall” test, which means just writing down what they remember from the passage.
  • Participants also completed an autobiographical questionnaire. This was designed to get details that might be relevant to their interpretations of the passage (e..g Do you have a family member who is a law enforcement officer?).
  • They also completed a debriefing questionnaire to see if they were aware of alternative interpretations of the text.


  • Results from the original study.

    The PE students got more correct (64%) answers in the Prison/Wrestling passage than the music students (28%), but the opposite was true for the Card/Music passage – PE students got 29% correct whereas the Music students got 71%.

  • The results also showed that “…most subjects gave each passage one distinct interpretation or the other.”
  • The analysis of the free recall tests showed that the PE students were more likely to have a wrestling and card interpretation of the passages, whereas the music students were more likely to have a prison and music interpretation.
  • Analysis of autobiographical data showed the participants’ backgrounds had an effect on their interpretations.
  • 62% of the participants admitted that they never thought of an alternative interpretation of the passage while they were reading it, while 20% said they became aware during the multiple choice questions.

Conclusions and Applications:

The researchers conclude that “…personal history, knowledge, and belief influence the interpretations that they will give to prose passages.” Results from the multiple choice questions, free recall tests and autobiographical data “support unequivocally the claim that high-level schemata provide the interpretive framework for comprehending discourse.” Simply put, schemas affect our interpretation of stories.

Applications in Education

Anderson et al. consider from these results some possible implications for teaching. They suggest that maybe poor reading comprehension skills isn’t necessarily a lack of linguistic skills but a lack of prior knowledge. Improvements in teaching and learning can be made, therefore, if greater emphasis is placed not just on the physical act of reading but on developing relevant schemas for which to comprehend new information. How is this actually done in a classroom? That’s a whole different post!

I still remember reading “Z for Zachariah” in primary school and I pictured all of the events as if they were happening around our house. That’s because I was using my own schema to fill in the blanks left by the lack of descriptive detail in the text. Has this ever happened to you?

Critical Thinking Considerations

  • While 62% of participants were never aware of a different interpretation, about 20% of participants were. Does this mean the effects of schemas might not be the same for everyone? What other factors might affect how strongly our schemas affect our interpretations?
  • The groups were different in terms of experiences, but they were also different in terms of gender. Could this be a confounding variable in the study?


The Passages:

Prison/Wrestling Passage: “Rocky slowly got up from the mat, planning his escape. He hesitated a moment and thought. Things were not going well. What bothered him most was being held, especially since the charge against him had been weak. He considered his present situation. The lock that held him was strong but he thought he could break it. He knew, however, that his timing would have to be perfect. Rocky was aware that it was because of his early roughness that he had been penalized so severely—much too severely from his point of view. The situation was becoming frustrating; the pressure had been grinding on him for too long. He was being ridden unmercifully. Rocky was getting angry now. He felt he was ready to make his move. He knew that his success or failure would depend on what he did in the next few seconds.”

Here’s an example of one of the ten multi-choice questions given to participants:

How had Rocky been punished for his aggressiveness? 

  • A) He had been demoted to the “B” team.
  • B) His opponent had been given points (Correct for the wrestling interpretation)
  • C) He lost his privileges for the weekend.
  • D) He had been arrested and imprisoned (Correct for the prison interpretation)

Card/Music Passage: Every Saturday night, four good friends get together. When Jerry, Mike, and Pat arrived, Karen was sitting in her living room writing some notes. She quickly gathered the cards and stood up to greet her friends at the door. They followed her into the living room but as usual they couldn’t agree on exactly what to play. Jerry eventually took a stand and set things up. Finally, they began to play. Karen’s recorder filled the room with soft and pleasant music. Early in the evening, Mike noticed Pat’s hand and the many diamonds. As the night progressed the tempo of play increased. Finally, a lull in the activities occurred. Taking advantage of this, Jerry pondered the arrangement in front of him. Mike interrupted Jerry’s reverie and said, “Let’s hear the score.” They listened carefully and commented on their performance. When the comments were all heard, exhausted but happy, Karen’s friends went home.

Here’s an example of one of the ten multi-choice questions given to participants:

What did the four people comment on?

  • A) The odds of having so many high cards.
  • B) The sound of their music. (Correct for the musical interpretation)
  • C) The high cost of musical instruments.
  • D) How well they were playing cards. (Correct for the cards interpretation)


  • Anderson RC, Reynolds RE, Schallert DL, Goetz ET. Frameworks for Comprehending Discourse. American Educational Research Journal. 1977;14(4):367-381. doi:10.3102/00028312014004367
  • Anderson, R. C., & Pichert, J. W. (1978). Recall of previously unrecallable information following a shift in perspective. Journal of Verbal Learning & Verbal Behavior, 17(1), 1–12.