Use Your Audience’s Schema to Stop the Scroll
A simple psychological technique for arresting attention
The best marketing in the world won’t even have a chance to influence potential customers unless it first stops their scrolling.
A simple psychological tool, schema theory, can help you stop the thumbs of your target audience in mid-air above their smartphones.
Perhaps more importantly, it can also make the audience more likely to remember what they stopped scrolling to read.
A Ghost Story Reveals How Human Memory Works
Schema theory dates to Sir Frederick Bartlett’s seminal work, Remembering.
In one of several studies he recounts, Bartlett had white, middle-class British subjects read and then recall a Native American ghost story. Invariably, they added, deleted, exaggerated, or downplayed various details. Yet they insisted they recalled the story as it was written.
Significantly, the British participants changed the culturally unfamiliar details and replaced them with more familiar versions. Some people went so far as to take the ghost out of the ghost story.
When questioned about their recollections, the subjects insisted they were recalling the story as it was originally told.
Bartlett realized that their memories weren’t faulty; rather, human memory is reconstructive — we reconstruct events and information in the process of recalling them.
So-called memory gaffes, such as Brian Williams embellishing a story of his war journalism the more he retold it, become much more innocent when we realize that people often (re)combine experiences and information from various sources into a new memory so unified that they can’t disentangle which information came from which source.
Bartlett’s British subjects lacked schemata for details specific to Native American culture, so their reconstructions of the ghost story transformed those details so that they fit into their existing schemata.
Brian Williams’ schemata probably included the danger of getting shot down by a missile and stories of other helicopters meeting that fate.
In a widely-cited study, Elizabeth Loftus demonstrated that people overestimate the speed of cars in a traffic accident if an interviewer asks, “How fast were the cars going when they smashed into each other?” as opposed to verbs like “hit” or “collided.” Some people even recalled broken glass on the pavement even though there was none.
The word “smashed” affected the subjects’ reconstruction of the accident. “Smashed” activated a different schema for car accidents than, say, “bumped.” Many similar misinformation studies have confirmed memory’s reconstructive, malleable nature.
If memory is reconstructive, then communication can either facilitate or impede forming effective, accurate reconstruction.
If memory is malleable, then communication can literally change people’s minds.
High School Flyers and Self-Schema Filters
Now that we know about schema theory and how human memory works, we can understand how self-schema affects what we notice, pay attention to, and remember — that is, what we stop scrolling to read and how intently we read it.
We have schemata for all manners of things, including ourselves. A “self-schema” can be described as an organized conceptual framework about oneself.
For example, I’m a husband, father, teacher, writer, baseball fan, and more. In totality, these various self-schemata form an overall self-schema or identity. Certain identities may be more relevant than others in a given situation, but they all factor into my self-concept.
Our senses are bombarded by countless stimuli per second, and self-schemata filter those stimuli so that we pay attention only to what’s important.
Self-schemata affects whether we notice something, how much attention we pay to it, and whether we try to encode it into long-term memory.
So if I’m walking through a store, I’m more likely to notice, devote attention, and remember the advertisement about toys my son might like than the signage about a great new deal on socks — unless I happen to need socks.
For my dissertation research, I asked 20 people, 10 teachers, and 10 students, to walk down a high school hallway and report the flyers and posters they recalled.
Their self-schemata acted like natural, nonconscious filters for their attention.
Theoretically, everyone should have remembered the flyers and posters with certain memorable characteristics, such as colorful imagery. More often, the subjects’ self-schemata determined what they remembered.
Their self-schemata acted like natural, nonconscious filters for their attention, determining what they noticed and remembered versus what they ignored and didn’t recall ever seeing.
Both the teachers and students remembered things that were relevant to their self-schemata.
The teachers primarily remembered flyers about upcoming school club meetings or ACT exam dates in case their students asked. The students mainly remembered posters and flyers that connected with their identities.
The lone subject who noticed a flyer about a gun raffle said, “I noticed and remembered it because I’m a hunter, and I’d like to win a new deer rifle.” (I live in a rural area.)
Activate your audience’s self-schema to connect with them personally and emotionally.
We form schemata to facilitate cognition and memory, so we naturally update and refine them when we learn new information. The audience can usually update their existing schemata to include whatever you’re marketing.
Your audience will almost always have existing schemata for the topic at hand. If you can activate those schemata and help the audience incorporate new information into them, then your communication will be much more memorable and effective.
To be most compelling, you can also activate the audience’s self-schema. Your information will pass through the audience’s attentional filter and connect with them personally and emotionally.
Examples of Schema Stopping the Scroll
Here are some examples of tweets that stopped me in my tracks because of how they engaged my self-schema.
Like most (but sadly, not all) Americans, I am very concerned about the spread of COVID-19. I’m also a political news hound who minored, and for a time double-majored, in political science. I’m married to a political scientist.
This tweet, then, screamed “personal relevance” at me. I stopped scrolling, examined the graph, and even read the article.
Screenshot from my Twitter feed
Sometimes, you may take advantage of current events, shocking news, or hot topics to stop people’s scrolling and engage their attention.
Other times, you should try to make the events, news, or topic relevant to your target audience’s own sense of identity.
NPR Politics might have tweeted, “Rural communities join urban areas in high rates of COVID-19 spread,” if they were aiming to engage rural people who remain skeptical of COVID-19’s hazards for smaller, more isolated communities.
Screenshot from my Twitter feed
Noticing a theme? The image of Trump, the article title, and then the tweet itself passed through the attention filter of my self-schema as a political news-enthusiast.
Again, I stopped scrolling, absorbed the tweet, and mulled it over a bit before continuing.
No, I didn’t click on the article, but I’m much more likely to remember this information — and possibly act on it later, telling someone about it, clicking on a different NYT op-ed in the future — than the hundreds of tweets I mindlessly scrolled through that evening.
As marketers, we want the information to enter our audience’s long-term memory where they can internalize and act on it.
Giving some thought to your audience’s self-schema can help your marketing stand out, keep attention, and stick with readers.
Best of all, it’s relatively simple — appeal to the readers’ images of themselves and ground new ideas in existing, familiar concepts.
Eric Sentell holds a PhD in Composition & Rhetoric. He teaches writing and coordinates General Education at a public university. He writes entertaining articles that help people think, write, and feel better.