Schemas, Assimilation, Accommodation, Equilibration

Jean Piaget is famous in the world of psychology for his observations and intellectual contributions in regards to the cognitive development of children.

His theories, however, can also be useful for understanding learning in general and can be applied quite usefully to survivors of trauma.  His theories pertaining to the acquisition and processing of knowledge are helpful in understanding the ways in which trauma survivors process the events and emotions surrounding aversive lifetime experiences.  (The following outline of his key concepts has been taken from the following website http://psychology.about.com/od/piagetstheory/a/keyconcepts.htm and the work outlined below should be attributed to it’s author Kendra Cherry)

Key Concepts

Schemas – A schema describes both the mental and physical actions involved in understanding and knowing. Schemas are categories of knowledge that help us to interpret and understand the world.

In Piaget’s view, a schema includes both a category of knowledge and the process of obtaining that knowledge. As experiences happen, this new information is used to modify, add to, or change previously existing schemas.

For example, a child may have a schema about a type of animal, such as a dog. If the child’s sole experience has been with small dogs, a child might believe that all dogs are small, furry, and have four legs. Suppose then that the child encounters a very large dog. The child will take in this new information, modifying the previously existing schema to include this new information.

Assimilation – The process of taking in new information into our previously existing schema’s is known as assimilation. The process is somewhat subjective, because we tend to modify experience or information somewhat to fit in with our preexisting beliefs. In the example above, seeing a dog and labeling it “dog” is an example of assimilating the animal into the child’s dog schema.

Accommodation – Another part of adaptation involves changing or altering our existing schemas in light of new information, a process known as accommodation. Accommodation involves altering existing schemas, or ideas, as a result of new information or new experiences. New schemas may also be developed during this process.

Equilibration – Piaget believed that all children try to strike a balance between assimilation and accommodation, which is achieved through a mechanism Piaget called equilibration. As children progress through the stages of cognitive development, it is important to maintain a balance between applying previous knowledge (assimilation) and changing behavior to account for new knowledge (accommodation). Equilibration helps explain how children are able to move from one stage of thought into the next.

This simple video helps to understand the basic concepts of schema, assimilation and accomodation:

 

Some of the ways this theory can be applied to trauma can be seen in the following quote from “Psychological Trauma: A Developmental Approach” by Dora Black

“Hollen and Garber (1988) pointed out that when an individual is exposed to schema-discrepant information, one of two things normally happens.  Firstly, the information can be altered to fit into the existing schema (assimilation), and so an example of this in a rape victim might be , “it must have been something that I did to make this happen to me so it wasn’t really rape”  Thus Resick & Schnicke (1992) suggested that flashbacks and other intrusive memories may be attempts at integration when assimilation fails.  Secondly existing schemata may be altered to accommodate new incompatible information (accommodation), and an example of this might be, “the world is an unpredictable place and sometimes bad things happen to good people” Hollen and Garber (1988) suggested that assimilation usually happens more readily than accommodation, since it appears easier to alter ones perception of a single event than to change one’s view of the world.  Resick & Schnicke (1992) proposed that accommodation is a goal of therapy, but pointed out that over-accommodation can occur when accommodation happens without good social support or therapeutic guidance…….symptoms of intrusion, avoidance and arousal are caused by conflicts between new information received from the trauma and prior schemata…..such new information is typically assimilated into prior schemata in such a way that it blocks attempts at integration and is associated with intense emotions; intrusive memories are evidence of failed integration when assimilation fails” (page 70)

What is important to understand in regards to trauma and this cognitive theory is that most people do not expect to suffer a horrific event.  Their life schema and pre-existing systems of meaning do not account for such things happening.  Thus, when they do occur it puts strain on their basic understanding and concepts of the world as safe and benevolent.

Survivors of trauma can often be helped by understanding how they cognitively processed the trauma…..more to follow……

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