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Q J Exp Psychol (Hove). 2012;65(11):2258-70. doi: 10.1080/17470218.2012.696121. Epub 2012 Sep 13.

Bartlett's schema theory: the unreplicated "portrait d'homme" series from 1932.

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  • 1University of Bamberg, Department of General Psychology and Methodology, Markusplatz 3, D-96047 Bamberg, Germany.


In 1932, Frederic Bartlett laid the foundation for the later schema theory. His key assumption of previous knowledge affecting the processing of new stimuli was illustrated in the famous "portrait d'homme" series. Sequenced reproductions of ambiguous stimuli showed progressive object-likeness. As Bartlett pointed out, activation of specific schemata, for instance "the face schema", biases memory retrieval towards such schemata. In five experiments (Experiment 1, n = 53; Experiment 2, n = 177; Experiment 3, n = 36; Experiment 4, n = 6; Experiment 5, n = 2), we tested several factors potentially influencing retrieval biases-for example, by varying the general procedure of reproduction (repeated vs. serial) and by omitting versus providing visual or semantic cues for activating face schemata. Participants inspected face-like stimuli with the caption "portrait of the human" and reproduced them repeatedly under specific conditions. None of the experiments revealed a systematic tendency towards Bartlett's described case, even when the participants were explicitly instructed to draw "a face" like the previously inspected one. In one of the "serial reproduction" experiments, we even obtained contrary effects with decreasing face-likeness over the reproduction generations. A close analysis of the original findings raises questions about the replicability of Bartlett's findings, qualifying the "portrait d'homme" series more or less as an illustrative example of the main idea of reconstructive memory.

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