On Scripting

I want to share with you a passion project that I’ve been working on for quite a while. The following paragraphs are a culmination of research that I have done in a realm of interpersonal communication, called Schema Theory. I have tried to make the following essay as palatable as possible, while still offering significant insight into how this theory affects our lives. I believe Schema Theory ( also called “Scripting”) is a crucial element of the human psyche, and is a hinge-point that we in the church may have overlooked in how we relate in the community around us. I ask you to consider the following, and reach out to me with your thoughts and feedback on what I have shared.

Sorry, no smartass jokes in this one, y’all.


A teen tosses and turns in their bed the night before their first day at a new school, imagining all of the potential disasters that could befall them. A woman pictures the moments ahead of her as she flies home to visit her bed-ridden parents for the holidays. A college graduate walks through an interview in their mind that they are about to have, picturing the interviewing employer in detail, though he has never seen that person in real life. Each of these moments are hypothetical, but are an element of communication that is very real. Referred to generally as Schema Theory, or Script Theory, this manner of organizing potential future outcomes is a fascinating and essential work of the human mind.

The origins of studying this type of internal communication was developed by Roger Schank and in 1973[1] as he was developing boundaries for computer programs so that they would be appropriately bound to certain criteria for outcomes.[2] In the world of computer programming, Schank saw scripting as, “a structure that describes an appropriate sequence of events in a particular context. A script is made up of slots and requirements about what can fill up those slots”.[3] But as he considered the implications of these parameters for computer science, Schank began to connect this type of structured thinking within the human mind, as an element of inter connectedness with how the mind perceives, files, and manages information. Schank would go on to describe scripting in the mind as a, “predetermined, stereotyped sequence of actions that define a well-known situation”.[4]

Situations that could be then scripted were those such as trips to the grocery store, eating at a restaurant, doing a chore like mowing the lawn, or even going to get one’s hair cut. The person scripting could, in their mind, paint a vivid picture of the account that they were about to take part in, thus anticipating the accepted boundaries for which they were about to engage in. With scripting in the mind of the individual, they will then carry out the task/experience. If (and often when) the actual event does not occur as scripted in the mind, the individual is brought into a crossroads of how to next proceed.

Schank refers to these changes as “hitches”, and argues that they must be dealt with,[5] suggesting that scripting is more than a mental exercise prior to an event, but it is formative in the actions and perceptions of the person doing the scripting. Stated another way, the one who scripts often “acts out” how they believe the experience should be played out, not necessarily how the real-time event demands it be acted out at that particular time.[6]

Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert took the idea of scripting another step forward and argued that one need not ever have prior experience of an event to be a practitioner of scripting (he uses the term “experience simulator”).[7] Gilbert invited his audience to imagine a new flavor of ice cream developed by Ben and Jerry’s, “Liver and Onion”. Gilbert knows his audience has never had this ice cream, because it did not exist. However, this does not stop his listeners from scripting the experience in their mind, and immediately finding this idea to be something that they want no part in.[8]

Gilbert hypothesized that prior experience is not necessary for scripting, and that an individual can be completely naïve to an encounter and still have a fully scripted experience based on their specific past experiences in other realms and their particular “impact biases”.[9] Gilbert’s type of bias[10] is a term he uses to refer to, “the tendency to overestimate the hedonic impact of future events”. In defining it this way, Gilbert’s implication is that, generally speaking, individuals are poor at scripting future events.

All that being said, what does this look like for the average person in everyday life? Scripting can affect what people notice in their experiences, how all forms of communication are interpreted and how various decisions are made and how they are acted upon. Scripting can act as a filter, highlighting some elements and downplaying others. It can be used to classify people, places, things, and ideas (stereotyping). And while scripting may also help forecast future inevitabilities, this can also prove to be dangerous to assume. Scripts can also be used to recall past memories in order to help make future plans.[11] Knowing what scripting is can even give further insight into historical and theological frameworks.

Consider the biblical narrative of Matthew 16. Matthew writes to an audience who is well versed in the promises of God to the former Israelite nation for a Messiah. Jesus’ interaction lead his disciples to believe and confess (16:16) that he is the Messiah, and yet when Jesus begins to describe the future events (including his death), the disciple Peter’s engages with a now damaged script on how the Messiah is to come to fully embrace his role (16:22). When Jesus’ immediately rebukes Peter (16:23), the reader is left to wrestle with how a personal scripting of a Godly event can be sinful. Peter’s own well-intentioned scripting and impact bias result in his paradigm being different than that of his rabbi. First century readers of Matthew’s narrative would surely be challenged with how their own scripts may be in conflict with that of God’s as well. The similar correlation could be drawn between modern readers of the Biblical text.

As a communicator, there is a dual role that one must consider when it comes to scripting. The one who is speaking has probably scripted their own circumstances leading to, and including any experience in which they communicate. And though working through certain scripts for the communicator can be challenging, there should also be a consideration for the potential audience, and the potential for a “group” scripting of how the experience is imagined to take place. From a formal lecture, to an impromptu toast, a good communicator will have at least a general idea of what is expected, and how the group most likely anticipates the future communication to take place.

If done well, the communicator can choose to attempt to “follow” the script, or to go “off-script” as the circumstance/setting may deem appropriate. There is something to be said for respecting an audience’s script, and how this may earn their trust, but there is also something to be considered in doing something off-script in order to gain attention, and to grab the audience for a compelling and powerful experience. Who knows, doing something unexpected may assist in building new script for your audience in the future. Either way, the good communicator will work to engage scripts in a way that is respectful of the situation, but will engage the audience in the most impactful way possible.


[1] Schank, Roger C., and Robert P. Abelson. Scripts, plans, and knowledge. New Haven: Yale University, 1975. 151.

[2] “Roger Schank’s Thinking.” Roger Schank Homepage. Web. 26 Nov. 2011. <http://www.rogerschank.com/biography.html&gt;.

[3] Schank, Roger C., and Robert P. Abelson. Scripts, plans, and knowledge. 151.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid, 152.

[6] Wyer, Robert S.. Advances in Social Cognition. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum, 1995. 6.

[7] “Dan Gilbert asks, Why are we happy? | Video on TED.com.” TED: Ideas worth spreading Web. 26 Nov. 2011. <http://www.ted.com/talks/dan_gilbert

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Wenzel, Amy. “Schema Content for Threat in Social Phobia.” Cognitive Therapy and Research 28.6 (2004): 789-803. 791.

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