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A prototype is a cognitive representation that exemplifies the essential features of a category or concept. Specifically, a prototypical representation reflects the central tendency or the average or typical attributes of the members of a category. For example, the prototype of table consists of the knowledge that a table has four legs propping up a flat surface. People store prototypical knowledge of social groups (e.g., librarians), objects (e.g., tables), events (e.g., dining out), and ideas (e.g., the perfect date). These prototypical representations facilitate people’s ability to encode, organize, and retrieve information about everyday stimuli.
An early pioneer of prototype research was psychologist Eleanor Rosch, whose work during the 1960s and 1970s was inspired by the Aristotelian assumption that categories are logical entities whose membership is defined by an item’s possession of simple matching features. Rosch argued that not all items within a category have an equal degree of membership—that is, that potential category members vary in their distance from prototypical exemplars. In short, category membership is not absolute but a matter of degree, and these differing degrees of membership have important implications for information processing. For example, people are quicker to agree with the statement “a robin is a bird” than to the statement “a turkey is a bird.” Moreover, people are more likely to remember statements that are conceptually prototypical (e.g., “the boulder fell down the mountain”) than those that are conceptually nonprototypical (“the lettuce fell down the mountain”).
During the 1970s and 1980s, Nancy Cantor and Walter Mischel extended Rosch’s work on prototypes to the realm of social perception and social categories. According to Cantor and Mischel, there exist basic personality categories that social perceivers use to facilitate information processing about other people. This research was important in showing that people do not simply store specific, concrete items of information about others, but they routinely form abstract, prototypical representations. For example, when given traits about a person suggesting extroversion (e.g., friendly), people will later erroneously recall that they were given other traits (e.g., energetic) that fit the prototype of extroversion. These findings suggest that people are economical in their mental storage of information about others, relying on prototypes to influence the interpretation and accurate memory of specific personality trait information.
A concept in psychology that is related to the notion of prototype is schema. These two terms are often used interchangeably, but there are subtle differences. Prototype refers to a specific ideal image of a category member, with all known attributes filled in. For example, the prototypic “apple” may engender a representation of red, round fruit, even if actual category members vary so much on these characteristic dimensions that the prototype becomes meaningless for identifying them (e.g., some apples are green). An alternative to the prototype view of categorical knowledge is the concept of schema, which suggests that particular attributes can be ignored. For example, although we may associate “red” with apple, the schema concept allows for some features to remain unspecified. This greater flexibility with the schema concept may explain the wider use of the term schema, rather than prototype, in the social psychology literature.
Eliot Smith (1998) has argued that the distinction between schemas and prototypes is largely inconsequential and that four general points can be made about schema and prototype-based processing. First, schemas and prototypes are preexisting knowledge structures that are learned from other people or from experience. Second, the effects of schemas and prototypes on free recall tasks result from two sources: information processing that occurs at the time the stimulus information is first learned, and information processing that occurs when the information is later retrieved or reconstructed. Third, schemas and prototypes can be primed, thus influencing interpretations of information presented later. Finally, separate processes may govern our recall of specific traits and our overall evaluations of a person, rendering prototypes just part of the process of knowing others.
As Smith also has noted, psychologists in the twentyfirst century have moved away from models of mental representations that portray knowledge units as static or stored in memory. In contrast, contemporary cognitive models view knowledge representations as active, interactive, flexible, and sensitive to context. The relatively new field of cognitive science, with its ties to computer modeling and neuroscience, promises to shed significant future light on the more dynamic role of prototypes in influencing phenomena at multiple levels of analysis, including neural, mental, and social.
- Cantor, Nancy, and Walter Mischel. 1979. Prototypes in Person Perception. In Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, ed. Leonard Berkowitz, Vol. 12, 3–52. New York: Academic Press.
- Rosch, Eleanor. 1978. Principles of Categorization. In Cognition and Categorization, ed. Eleanor Rosch and Barbara B. Lloyd,
47–83. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
- Smith, Eliot R. 1998. Mental Representations and Memory. In The Handbook of Social Psychology, ed. Daniel Gilbert, Susan Fiske, and Gardner Lindzey, Vol. 1, 391–445. 4th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill.
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