Discuss how social or cultural factors affect one cognitive process.


  • State what you are doing in the essay (in terms of factor & cognitive process) 
    • An example of the effect of social or cultural factors on one cognitive process is the effect of schemas on memory. 
  • Define schemas 
    • Schemas are cognitive structures that organise knowledge stored in our memory.
    • They are mental representations of categories from our knowledge, beliefs and expectations. 
  • Expand on schema 
    • Any information about particular aspects of the world the world, such as people, events, and actions are stored in a person’s brain in the form of schema.
    • The information that people are exposed to is affected by the society and culture they are in. 
    • Because people in different societies and cultures are exposed to different information, they will have different schemas. 
    • There are three different types of schemas 
      • Scripts – provide information about sequences of events that occur in particular contexts 
      • Self-Schemas – organize information we have about ourselves 
      • Social Schemas – represent information about different groups of people 
      • Schemas contain stereotypes and expectations acquired during life 
  • Explain briefly how schemas and memory interact 
    • Schemas are influenced by external factors such as social and cultural aspects, which then affect what is stored in our memory processes. 
  • Define Memory 
    • The cognitive processes whereby past experiences is remembered. 
  • Relationship between cultural influences on memory 
    • Memory content opens up a window through which we can observe cultural influences on the ways in which individuals attend to represent, organize, retrieve and share event information. 
  • Signpost
    • This relationship will be investigated in the following essay, offering a balanced review of the influence of social and cultural factors, with a particular focus on cultural factors” including a range of arguments and factors and supported by appropriate evidence such as research/empirical studies.


  • Supporting Studies: {Italics = CULTURAL STUDIES; Normal = SOCIAL STUDIES}
    • **Bartlett – “War of the Ghosts” (1932) 
    • Brewer & Treyens – “picnic basket” (1981) – social setting; however your culture can also dictate – interaction and integration between. However, these studies are deemed, and can be explained in a social/cultural state. 
    • Allport & Postman (1947) – classed as social 
    • French and Richards – Culture (how people can determine time – differently – some cultures might not use clocks, western cultures – clocks; schema for clock = roman numerals) 
    • Rogoff and Wadell (1982) 
    • **Cole and Scribner (1974) – Memory Strategies in different cultures. 
*Choose at least 2-3 studies from the above studies in the evaluation of schema theory **Main studies that should be used in regards to culture 

Supporting Study 1: Bartlett (1932) “War of the Ghost” 

Introduce Study/Signpost 

  • A significant researcher into schemas, Bartlett (1932) introduced the idea of schemas in his study entitled “The War of the Ghost.” 
  • Bartlett aimed to investigate the effect of culture on memory. 
  • Participants used were of an English background. 
  • Were asked to read “The War of the Ghosts” – a Native American folk tale. 
  • Tested their memory of the story using serial reproduction and repeated reproduction, where they were asked to recall it six or seven times over various retention intervals. 
    • Serial reproduction: the first participant reading the story reproduces it on paper, which is then read by a second participant who reproduces the first participant’s reproduction, and so on until it is reproduced by six or seven different participants.
    • Repeated reproduction: the same participant reproduces the story six or seven times from their own previous reproductions. Their reproductions occur between time intervals from 15 minutes to as long as several years. 
  • Both methods lead to similar results. 
  • As the number of reproductions increased, the story became shorter and there were more changes to the story. 
    • For example, ‘hunting seals’ changed into ‘fishing’ and ‘canoes’ became ‘boats’. 
  • These changes show the alteration of culturally unfamiliar things into what the English participants were culturally familiar with, 
  • This makes the story more understandable according to the participants’ experiences and cultural background (schemas). 
  • He found that recalled stories were distorted and altered in various ways making it more conventional and acceptable to their own cultural perspective (rationalization). 
  • Memory is very inaccurate 
    • It is always subject to reconstruction based on pre-existing schemas 
  • Bartlett’s study helped to explain through the understanding of schemas when people remember stories, they typically omit (”leave out”) some details, and introduce rationalisations and distortions, because they reconstruct the story so as to make more sense in terms of their knowledge, the culture in which they were brought up in and experiences in the form of schemas. 
Evaluation (optional): 
  • Limitations: 
    • Bartlett did not explicitly ask participants to be as accurate as possible in their reproduction
    • Experiment was not very controlled 
      • instructions were not standardised (specific) 
      • disregard for environmental setting of experiment 
Connection of study to question 
  • This study relates to the effect of culture on memory. 
    • Participants' recall of the story which was culturally-foreign to them was altered to be culturallyfamiliar when they were asked to recall, due to their schema (knowledge, background and past experiences).
    • Hence, the culture in which people are brought up in influences how they recall and reproduce stories and events to others, introducing cognitive distortions in memory because of their mental representations in the form of schemas. 
    • Barlett’s work (1932) demonstrated how schemas originating in one particular culture can affect how literature from another culture is recalled. His participants relied on schematic knowledge, acquired within their culture to understand and later recall a story from a different culture. 
Supporting Study 2: Brewer and Treyens (1981) “picnic basket” 

Introduce Study/Signpost: 

  • Further support for cultural factors on the influence of schemas of memory on cognition memory at encoding point was reported by Brewer and Treyens (1981). 
  • To see whether a stereotypical schema of an office would affect memory (recall) of an office 
  • Participants were taken into a university student office and left for 35 seconds before being taken to another room. 
  • They were asked to write down as much as they could remember from the office. 
  • Participants recalled things of a “typical office” according to their schema. 
  • They did not recall the wine and picnic basket that were in the office. 
  • Participants' schema of an office influenced their memory of it. 
  • They did not recall the wine and picnic basket because it is not part of their “typical office” schema. 
Evaluation (optional):
  • Strengths:
    • Strict control over variables to determine cause & effect relationship
  • Limitation: 
    • Lacks ecological validity 
      • Laboratory setting artificial environment 
      • Task does not reflect daily activity 
Connection of study to question 
  • This study shows how both social and cultural factors can influence schemas and hence what we recall in memory. 
    • Participants' typical office schema determined their recall and their non-recall of items because they did not fit into the office schema.
    • But it is important to note that the culture in which the participants were from could also have a major impact on their schema for an office, as different cultures can have different representations of what an office looks like, thus influencing how the participants recalled because of their schema, influenced by culture. 
    • However the above argument is valid, the study represents more social effects than cultural, as the participants “typical” office schemas were based on society’s representation of an office. Therefore it demonstrates that schemas, thus memory recall are affected by social factors. 
Supporting Study 3: Allport & Postman (1947) “Schemas and constructive memory” 

Introduce Study/Signpost: 

  • Another study demonstrating social influence on schemas into memory was by Allport and Postman (1947). 
  • To see if schemas affect recall. 
  • “White” and “Black” Americans participated in the study. 
  • Firstly the “White” Participants were shown a picture of an argument between a well-dressed black man, and a poorly dressed, unshaven white man holding a cut throat razor. 
  • Serial reproduction: Participant asked to describe picture to another white participant who in turn described it to someone else (similar to “Chinese whispers”). 
  • This method was repeated and the picture was shown to the “Black Participants” 
  • White participants: 
    • After a few retellings, the story had changed so that the black man was the aggressor, holding the knife. 
  • Black Participants: 
    • Results were not the same as what the white participants had recalled. There were more correct observations from the black participants in relation to the picture showed to them. 
  • This study is an example of how through the social environment, what we expect (based on stereotypical schemas) can distort what we actually hear and process into our memory. 
  • White people were heavily influenced by the history of racism from the acts of the olden-days America, whom discriminated against and placed heavy prejudices on Black African American people. Thus, the history of how black men were portrayed as aggressive and dangerous may have also influenced how they interpreted the story, affecting their schemas. 
  • Limitations:
    • Lacks ecological validity
      • Artificial stimulus picture rather than real life experience
  • Ethics 
    • Experiment demonstrates a racist schema
    • When the participants found out they had a schema of a black person being aggressive they might have been distressed because they might not have considered themselves racist. They would have felt bad afterwards - didn't come out the same as when they went in
Connection of study to question 
  • This study relates to how schemas affect memory. 
    • Reproduction of the description of the picture was affected by participants' stereotypical schemas. 
  • However in terms of a cultural aspect/viewpoint, the participants’ backgrounds may have affected how they recalled and interpreted the story, due to their knowledge of and history of their culture towards black people and hence influencing their schemas. 
Supporting Study 4: Rogoff and Wadell (1982) 

Introduce Study/Signpost: 
  • A further study demonstrating cultural influence on schematic knowledge is by Rogoff and Wadell (1982). 
  • The aim was to determine whether non-western children would show a memory defect for contextually organised spatial material. 
  • They gave Guatemalan children a memory task that was meaningful in local terms; constructed a diorama of a Mayan village located near a mountain and a lake, similar to the locale in which the children lived. 
  • Each child watched as a local experimenter selected 20 miniature objects from a set of 80 and placed them in the diorama. 
    • Objects included (the kind of things that would be found in a real town): 
      • Cars 
      • Animals 
      • People 
      • Furniture 
  • Then the 20 objects were returned to the group of 60 others remaining on the table. After a few minutes, the children were asked to reconstruct the full scene they had been shown. 
  • This methodology was then repeated to children from the united states (to their counterparts) 
  • Under these conditions, the memory performance of the Mayan children was slightly superior to that of their United States counterparts. 
Connection of study to question 
  • This study supports that culture affects memory. 
    • Guatemalan children could remember better than their UN counterparts when the task was meaningful in local terms.
    • Culture heavily impacts schema, thus memory recall. Through this study, it shows that people can remember better or perform tasks which are recognized as part of their culture, due to cultural influences and experiences stored in their schemas.
Supporting Study 5: Cole and Scribner (1974)

Introduce Study/Signpost:
  • A further study demonstrating cultural influence on schematic knowledge (in terms of memory strategies in different cultures – USA & Liberia) is by Cole and Scribner (1974). 
  • They observed the effects of formal schooling/education (in relation to culture) had on memory. 
  • Tested the memory ability of non-schooled children in the Kpelle tribe in Liberia and compared them with US school children. 
  • Children were expected to remember items on word lists that were organized into different categories. 
  • Test was repeated with the children several times. 
  • The Kpelle children did not improve their performance in free recall memory tests after the age of 10 in the same way as US children; after 15 trials they only remembered 2 more items. 
  • Kpelle children who attended school had similar performance tUS school children. 
  • School children in US and Liberia used categorical recall; they appeared to have chunked the items in to linked categories as they recalled them in groups such as utensils, clothes, vegetables, tools. 
  • When items were presented as part of a story the Kpelle children (non-schooled) had equally good performance as the US children. 
  • Children with formal schooling in America and Liberia used this mnemonic which improved their memory of the items. Children without formal schooling however, did not use the categories to aid their recall and subsequently did not remember as much as children who had attended school. 
Connection of study to question:
  • This study supports that culture affects memory.  
    • The Kpelle children performed just as well as their US counterparts in a culturally-familiar memory task, but not on a free recall task. 
    • This is because the free-recall task that Cole and his colleagues originally used to assess memory among Liberian tribal people has no precise analogy in traditional Liberian cultures, so it is not surprising that the corresponding way of remembering would not be acquired.
  • Cognitive skills (memory) are dependent on the environment – which is made up of education, social interaction, technology and in this case, culture. 
  • Therefore culture influences schemas, and thus our memory ability/ability to recall and have advantageous effects if asked to do a task associated with your culture. 


  • As demonstrated in these four studies, cultural factors stored in our schemas affect memory, 
  • Therefore, human cognition is culturally independent – in the way that cognitive abilities are influenced by the social and cultural context in which people live. 
  • The implication of these studies is that although the ability to remember is a universal intellectual requirement, specific forms of remembering are not universal, as factors such as cultural aspects are different, in that not cultures have the same memory strategies. 
  • As demonstrated by the studies, people learn to remember in ways that are relevant for their everyday lives. 
  • The studies established, in particular Bartlett’s work, showed that memory is, to a significant extent, a construction; moreover, one that relies heavily on the schemas we develop in our cultural settings. 
  • And that the schemas we develop from our cultural backgrounds can influence the cognitive process of memory.