Story Processing

If someone asks us to tell them about a story or book that we have read recently, we discuss the major events and themes of the story, and leave out virtually all the minor details. In other words, our description of the story is highly selective, and is determined by its meaning. Indeed, imagine the questioner's reaction if we simply recalled sentences taken at random from the story!

Gomulicki (1956) provided a simple demonstration of the selective way in which stories are comprehended and remembered. One group of participants wrote a précis (abstract or summary) of a story that was visible in front of them, and a second group recalled the story from memory. A third group of participants who were given each précis and recall found it very hard to tell them apart. Thus, story memory resembles a précis, in that people focus mainly on important information.

Story grammars

Most (or all) stories possess some kind of structure. Some psychologists have argued that all stories share common elements at a very general and abstract level. This led to the notion of a story grammar, which is a set of rules from which the structure of any given story can be generated. Thorndyke (1977) considered a story grammar in which there was a hierarchical structure with the major categories of setting, theme, plot, and resolution at the top of the hierarchy. Thorndyke tested this story grammar by presenting a story in which the theme was in its usual place at the start of the story, or it was placed at the end of the story, or it was omitted altogether. Memory for the story was best when the theme had been presented at the start of the story, and it was better when it had been presented at the end rather than not at all.

Other research based on similar notions has supported the view that stories are hierarchically organised. For example, Meyer and McConkie (1973) found that an event low down in the story hierarchy was much more likely to be recalled if the event immediately above it in the hierarchy had been recalled.

Evaluation

The notion that stories have an underlying structure is reasonable, but the story grammar approach has not proved to be of lasting value. Why is this? One major reason was identified by Harley (1995, p. 233): "There is no agreement on story structure: virtually every story grammatician has proposed a different grammar." Another limitation is that story grammars are not very informative about the processes involved in story comprehension.

Schema theories

The term schema is used to refer to well integrated chunks of knowledge about the world, events, people, and actions. Scripts and frames are relatively specific kinds of schemas. Scripts deal with knowledge about events and consequences of events. Thus, for example, Schank and Abelson (1977) referred to a restaurant script, which contains information about the usual sequence of events involved in going to a restaurant to have a meal. In contrast, frames deal with knowledge about the properties of objects and locations. Schemas are important in language processing, because they contain much of the knowledge that is used to facilitate understanding of what we hear and read.

A crucial function of schemas is that they allow us to form expectations. In a restaurant, for example, we expect to be shown to a table, to be given a menu by the waiter or waitress, to order the food and drink, and so on. If any of these expectations is violated, then we usually take appropriate action. For example, if no menu is forthcoming, we try to catch the eye of the waiter or waitress. As our expectations are generally confirmed, schemas help us to make the world a more predictable place than it would be otherwise.

Evidence that schemas can influence story comprehension was reported by Bransford and Johnson (1972, p. 722). They presented a passage in which it was hard to work out which schemas were relevant. Part of it was as follows:

The procedure is quite simple. First, you arrange items into different groups. Of course one pile may be sufficient depend ing on how much there is to do. If you have to go somewhere else due to lack of facilities that is the next step; otherwise, you are pretty well set. It is important not to overdo things. That is, it is better to do too few things at once than too many In the short run this may not seem important but complications can easily arise.

The participants who heard the passage in the absence of a title rated it as incomprehensible and recalled an average of only 2.8 idea units. In contrast, those who were supplied beforehand with the title "Washing clothes" found it easy to understand and recalled 5.8 idea units on average. This effect of relevant schema knowledge occurred because it helped comprehension of the passage rather than because the title acted as a useful retrieval cue: participants who received the title after hearing the passage but before recall, produced only 2.6 idea units on average.

Bartlett's theory

Bartlett (1932) was the first psychologist to argue persuasively that schemas play an important role in determining what we remember from stories. According to him, memory is affected not only by the presented story, but also by the participant's store of relevant prior knowledge in the form of schemas. He had the ingenious idea of presenting his participants with stories that produced a conflict between what was presented to them and their prior knowledge. If, for example, people read a story taken from a culture different from their own, then prior knowledge might produce distortions in the remembered version of the story, rendering it more conventional and acceptable from the standpoint of their own cultural background. Bartlett's (1932) findings supported his predictions. In particular, a substantial proportion of the recall errors were in the direction of making the story read more like a conventional English story. He used the term rationalisation to refer to this type of error.

Bartlett (1932) assumed that memory for the precise material presented is forgotten over time, whereas memory for the underlying schemas is not. As a result, rationalisation errors (which depend on schematic knowledge) should increase in number at longer retentional intervals. Bartlett (1932) reported findings that

"*-'' fictitious main character famous main character

Short retention interval(S min)

"*-'' fictitious main character famous main character

Short retention interval(S min)

Long retention interval (1 week)

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