Chances are high that you have never heard of Fredric Bartlett, but in 1932 he conducted one of the most famous cognitive psychology studies of all time at Cambridge University.
The experiment involved Bartlett reciting a Native American folk tale called “The War of the Ghosts” to a number of participants. Next, he followed-up by asking the participants to repeat the story back to him several times over a twelve month period.
What Bartlett discovered was that both the content and quality of the story degraded substantially over time, as each person adapted the story to fit their own world view and beliefs. This process included each person altering the story content as well as its theme and emphasis.
In other words, each person changed the story to become more meaningful to themself based on their biases and memories.
Psychologists tell us that this reinterpretation process is influenced by a “schema”, where preconceived notions are used to interpret what is currently being experienced. Schemas therefore are naturally self-validating whether they are accurate or not.
More importantly, schemas tend to be sticky and resilient to change – even in the face of contradictory information.
In dentistry, we face the schema phenomenon almost every day, as new patients walk in our door with preconceived notions about what dentistry can and can not do to help them, as well as how it is accomplished.
Schemas then represent our patient’s beliefs about us and our purpose. And if we fail to create a safe and helpful learning opportunity for our patients to challenge the validity of their schemas, they will proceed along with their misconceptions and distorted assumptions.
And this is likely why Mrs. Smith flies into an unexpected rant at the front desk, or cocks her head oddly when you tell her she has a new dental problem. Assumptions set up tension when challenged, and tension triggers stress which sometimes leads to confrontation – all attempts to defend a sticky and resilient schema.
Bob Barkley understood all of this, even though the term “schema” was not widely used in his time. He understood people on a very deep level, and consequently developed the co-discovery process to break through and break down each patient’s distorted beliefs about dentistry and replace them with the truth, facts, and helpful information based on his philosophy of practice.
On a psychological level, co-discovery facilitates the replacement of old schemas with a new updated and relevant perspective of dentistry and the value of dental care. And from there a patient can much more easily choose to become more healthy.
Paul A Henny, DDS
Thought Experiments LLC, © 2016