How schemas distort the way we see the world

I recently watched a report on the Guardian website about ‘flat Earth theory’, on the growing number of people who believe that the Earth is not in fact a sphere, but a flat disc. It’s intriguing and well worth watching, but I think it also tells us a great deal about the way schemas can distort the way we see the world (whatever shape we think it is).

Here is a photograph of the Earth, taken from space by an astronaut on the Apollo 17 mission. I would say that looks very much like a sphere (to be nerdily precise, it’s actually an ‘oblate spheroid’, but that’s still basically a sphere) a view backed by every serious scientist in the world. There is no doubt or debate about this, it’s just a simple scientific fact – as is the way that all large objects in space form spheres because of the shaping and smoothing effect of gravity.

So how do the Flat Earthers manage to ignore the overwhelming evidence against their passionately held position? We could ask the same question about climate-change deniers, or anti-vaxxers – both groups fiercely defend their views despite clear scientific evidence to the contrary.

How schemas work

One way to explain this is to think about schemas and how they affect our thinking. If you have a Defectiveness schema, say, you might strongly believe that you are stupid, even if you do well on your GCSEs, or get a 2:1 in your degree. You may believe you are ugly, even if your partner, friends and family tell you again and again that you are in fact very pretty. That’s because the schema affects the information-processing systems in your brain, distorting the way you think. Schemas affect our memories, belief systems, our imagined view of the future and the way we interpret sensory information such as what we see or hear. When triggered, they distort the way we think about ourselves, our actions, what people say to us and what we read or see on the internet.

So if you have a Flat Earth schema, it tells you that all the supposed scientific evidence is part of a grand conspiracy to fool and control you. It tells you that Newton’s theory of gravity is nonsense, that you should believe spurious theories on YouTube or in your Facebook feed more than genuine, evidence-based facts and information. Sadly, we are currently seeing this sort of thinking more and more, which also explains Trump and the rise of populism around the world.

As a (fairly) rational person and evidence-based practitioner, this worries me deeply, as it is doing great harm to our world – for example, denying climate change at the very moment humanity needs to take drastic action to keep the planet inhabitable for humans and other species. But if you understand the way that schemas work, it’s not surprising that people hold bizarre or impossible-to-prove beliefs. After all, because everyone has schemas everybody does have distorted or unhelpful beliefs, even if we don’t think the Earth is in fact a big, blue Frisbee suspended in space…

If you would like to understand more about schemas and how they might be causing your psychological problems, call me on 07766 704210, email or use the Contact form to get in touch.

Warm wishes,