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Cultural schema theory (Nishida, 1999) explains the familiar and pre-acquainted knowledge one uses when entering a familiar situation in his/her own culture. Cultural schemas for social interaction are cognitive structures that contain knowledge for face-to-face interactions in a person's cultural environment. Schemas are generalized collections of knowledge of past experiences that are organized into related knowledge groups; they guide our behaviors in familiar situations. Cultural schemas do not differ from other schemas, except that they are shared by certain cultural groups rather than individuals (Garro, 2000). Schemas unique to individuals are created from personal experiences, whereas those shared by individuals are created from various types of common experiences (Garro, 2000). Cultural schema theory proposes that when we interact with members of the same culture in certain situations many times, or talk about certain information with them many times, cultural schemas are created and stored in our brain (Nishida, 1999).
Cultural schema theory may be a relatively new theory, but neither schema nor cultural schema are new concepts.
The idea of schemas existing as ideal types in the mind dates back all the way back to Plato (see also and Schema (psychology)) . In the 19th century German philosopher Immanuel Kant developed the idea that every person's experiences are gathered in memory, forming higher order concepts. In the 1920s Jean Piaget's work investigated schemas in infants. In the 1930s Frederic Bartlett tested memory for schemas. From the 1970s to the 1990s, many researchers obtained loads of evidence showing that people's behaviors are deeply embedded to what they store in their brains. Through these studies researchers learned that human behavior relies heavily on past experiences and the knowledge stored in one's brain.
Research also revealed that schemas operate at many different levels. The experiences which are unique to individuals allow them to acquire personal schemas. Societal schemas may emerge from a group's collective knowledge and are represented across the minds in a society, enabling people to think as if they are one mind (Malcolm & Sharifian, 2002). However, when one's cultural environment provides experiences to which every member of that culture is exposed, their experiences allow every member to acquire cultural schemas (Nishida, 1999). Cultural schemas are structures which enable individuals to store perceptual and conceptual information about their culture and interpret cultural experiences and expressions. If people are not equipped with the appropriate cultural schema, they may not be able to make sense of culturally unfamiliar situations (Malcolm & Sharifian, 2002).
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