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Emotion Schemas

Emotion schemas are psychic structures that shape our individual personalities, and influence the way we interact with other people, experience our emotions, and interpret our reactions.  Schematic representations of this nature are similar to the concepts we know as object representations, or Bowlby’s (1969) concept of working models, or Stern’s (1985) concept of representations of interactions that have been generalized (RIGs). They are also similar to Freud’s formulation of the concept of the transference (Freud, 1912).

During infancy, emotion schemas develop as the child learns to both interpret and regulate emotions through interactions with important caretakers. Through early activities such as playing or feeding, the child begins to experience emotions in the context of the environment and in interacting with other people. The primary caretaker, through mirroring the infant's reactions and providing emotional feedback through gesture, facial expression and tone of voice, helps the infant to regulate their emotional experience. For example, negative emotions may be resolved by the parent soothing the baby; this experience is internalized by the infant so that in the future they are able to call upon their own internal resources for coping with negative emotional reactions. Repeated interpersonal interactions such as these help the child to develop a unique emotional character, and lays the groundwork for the affective interpretation of and expectation associated with interpersonal relationships in the future.

Emotion schemas, like other memory schemas, are based on information taken from numerous similar or repeated experiences from a person’s past. Emotion schemas are distinguished from other memory schemas in that they are derived mainly from interpersonal interactions, and dominated by the affective core, consisting of somatic, sensory and motoric experience. Signals such as increased heart rate, energy levels, or the activation of the facial muscles used in smiling serve as a somatic map of emotional experience from birth and throughout the lifespan. Emotion schemas receive further elaboration over time and experience, and eventually become integrated complex organizations that lay the groundwork for personality organization.

The particulars of past personal events that have contributed to the development of different emotion schemas are usually unconscious and non-verbal; in terms of multiple code theory, they exist in the nonverbal subsymbolic realm. An emotion schema can be activated and brought into present awareness when a portion of the schema acts as a trigger - perhaps a familiar face, or a certain smell, or a particular somatic sensation that reminds the person of a past emotionally-charged event. When this occurs, it is possible to focus in on a particularly emotionally salient memory, and to connect the emotion schema to language by using the memory as a conduit. When this connection is strong, we are able to say that the words and the emotion schema ‘refer’ to each other, or in other words, there is ‘high’ referential activity (Bucci, 1997).


Bowlby, J. (1969). Attachment and loss: Vol. 1. Attachment. New York: Basic Books.

Bucci, W. (1997). Psychoanalysis and Cognitive Science: A multiple code theory. NY: Guilford Press.

Freud, S. (1912), The dynamics of transference. Standard Edition, 12:97-108. London: Hogarth Press, 1958.

Stern, D.N. (1985). The interpersonal world of the infant. NY:Basic Books, Inc.