Encyclopedia of Personality and Individual Differences

Living Edition
| Editors: Virgil Zeigler-Hill, Todd K. Shackelford


  • Theresa H. HeEmail author
  • Alexandra N. Fisher
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-28099-8_1901-1


Script Theory Friendship Script Knee-jerk Response Stereotypical Canadian Friendly Waiter 
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Used as a mental shortcut, scripts are a set of expected events for a particular situation. Scripts are developed by taking information from past experiences to inform future thoughts and behaviors. The types of scripts internalized by each individual are influenced by personality differences and group affiliation, which, in turn, have an impact on the types of scripts that are formed.


Exposed to a world filled with complex stimuli, even the extraordinary human brain can have difficulty processing the information it is faced with. The mental demands of the environment can often be quite taxing, which is why humans have evolved the ability to use cognitive shortcuts, such as scripts or schemas. Although exact conditions may differ from time to time, many events in day-to-day life tend to follow a type of pattern, such as dining at a restaurant or going on a date. For example, Joe, who has been matched with Ann on a dating website, feels that he always has to be the first to initiate conversation and must be the one to ask Ann out on a date. Because of this dating script, he may fail to comprehend or even recognize when Ann asks him out to dinner instead. For others of course, the script for initiating a date need not be quite as rigid. In Ann’s mind, it is perfectly natural for women to be the one to initiate a relationship. Moreover, just as tapping below the knee triggers a knee-jerk response, certain stimuli can trigger particular thoughts and actions. However, unlike the knee-jerk response, individual responses to stimuli can often be quite different, as in the case of Joe and Ann. Despite its label as a shortcut, scripts are often quite complex, eliciting a wide array of cognitive and behavioral responses for a variety of situations.

A History of Scripts

Toward the tail end of his career, psychologist Silvan Tomkins began to feel dissatisfied with the dominant personality theories of the time. In particular, he felt that the behaviorist approach to personality was too one-dimensional; behaviors were more complex than just the basic stimulus-response (Tomkins 1995). Tomkins felt that the behaviorist approach failed to take into account the rich affective experience of the individual – future actions are often informed by emotional responses to past experiences. As a result of his dissatisfaction, Tomkins created what is now known as script theory. According to the script theory, the basic unit of an experience is called a scene, which consists of a stimulus-affect-response. Essentially, when someone is exposed to a stimulus, it naturally elicits some form of emotional reaction, which then leads to a behavioral response. As part of his theory, scripts were defined as multiple similar scenes packed together, along with the emergent patterns and rules from these scenes. For example, going back to Ann and Joe, the dinner date script would involve several different types of scenes. Following the stimulus-affect-response format, a typical scene might look something like this: a polite and friendly waiter (stimulus) leads to Ann and Joe having a pleasant evening (affect), which leads to Ann leaving the waiter a sizeable tip (response). Naturally, over the course of the evening, Ann and Joe’s interactions with each other also result in scenes, such as offering a kiss, feeling joyful, and then promising a second date. Together, scenes like these end up comprising the dinner date script, which Ann and Joe can use on future dates. By using the same script in similar situations, they can react to events with the greatest possible efficiency, to achieve the best possible result.

General Features of Scripts

By definition, scripts are a set of rules that are used to describe, evaluate, and predict scenes (Tomkins 1995). Interestingly though, not all scenes are deemed important enough for people to remember and thereby order into scripts. Taking this into account, scripts are likely to be incomplete – either due to the aforementioned transience of certain scenes or due to an overall lack of information. Information can come from a variety of sources, which can include language, sensory input, memory, and cultural influences. Scripts are shaped by individual thought processes and life experiences, which means that they can be modified, expanded, or simply confirmed over the course of a lifetime. Most often, people have a tendency to engage in confirmation bias, leading them to only seek out or accept knowledge that validates their scripts. As a result, scripts may not always be accurate. For example, someone can have a script for talking to a Canadian person which involves discussing maple syrup and hockey. While this may indeed be accurate in some cases, this script would definitely not apply to all Canadians. When it comes to social situations, scripts play a vital role in determining how interactions unfold.

Social Scripts

According to several behavioral theorists, human social behavior is determined by a set of rules (e.g., Argyle and Henderson 1984), which can be defined as a script. Evidently, different social relationships and interactions require various types of scripts. For example, exchange relationship scripts (like the ones used between coworkers or service providers and their customers) stipulate that there must be an equal trade of benefits, whereas communal relationship scripts (like the ones used between family members, friends, or romantic partners) seek an equality of affect (Clark and Mills 1979). More generally, there are also different scripts for romantic relationships and friendships (Argyle and Henderson 1984). Long-term romantic relationships can be defined by more than just internal unspoken scripts; marriage can involve legal rites, owning shared property, and the expectation of children. Although friendship scripts are likely more informal, they can still incorporate a great deal of rules, including things such as sharing news of success, showing emotional support, volunteering help when needed, and striving to make the other person happy.

Outside of dyadic relationships, scripts can also impact group behaviors. Stereotyping, which is a specific form of script activation, describes the assignment of a set of traits or characteristics to a particular group (Ashmore and Del Boca 1981). Thinking back to the Canadian example, people may stereotype Canadians as being extremely polite, earnest about hockey, and enamored by beavers. While this might sound benign and even humorous, stereotyping can actually be quite harmful. Stereotyped individuals can feel boxed in by expectations and deindividualized by others. Those who do not adhere to the expected profile may be degraded and ignored, even by members of their own group (Marques and Paez 1994). Unfortunately, prejudice and discrimination are common outcomes of stereotyping, as evidenced by recent racial tensions in the United States against non-White immigrants (Woodson 2017).

It is important to note that on top of being applied to other people, this type of script activation can also be applied to the self. When people begin to self-identify with a group, they no longer perceive themselves as being unique and different. The behavioral scripts they adopt are those of the group’s – conforming to group goals, characteristics, and beliefs. One particularly well-known theory refers to these types of social scripts as relational schemas (Baldwin 1992). Relational schemas are defined as internalized relationship constructs that arise from regular patterns of interaction. For example, a child who consistently cleans their room and receives parental praise for doing so can develop a script that suggests diligence = approval. As a result of this script, the child will also think of herself as being diligent and her parents as being supportive. The internal scripts that each person adopts can be incredibly powerful, capable of influencing both group affiliation and individual personality.

The Relationship between Scripts and Personality/Individual Differences

Based on current research, the exact relationship between scripts and personality appears to be a rather contentious source of debate. In one theory, scripts have been proposed as an alternative to traits as the primary unit of personality (Thorne 1995). For situations that are more multifaceted, trait theory may be too simple to capture the dynamics of the event. By examining the interplay between two or more different scripts, researchers can better understand the intricacies of personality. For example, a person might have the conflicting traits of being both extraverted and anxious-avoidantly attached. In this situation, trait theory would fail to tell us how this person would react to other people – would they seek out interaction with others? Or would they shy away from interaction instead? Using script theory, we can examine the relationship between these two traits and come to the conclusion that although this person has a script for approaching others due to their extraversion, they also have a script for expecting relationships to fail due to their anxious-avoidant attachment style.

Interestingly though, other researchers suggest that scripts are simply correlated with traits; there appears to be a systematic relationship between individual differences in scripts and individual differences in traits from the Five-Factor Model (Demorest et al. 2012). For example, participants who scored highly on the trait of Agreeableness also reported having the script of Affiliation-Joy (meaning that experiencing affiliation with others elicited feelings of joy), but not the Fun-Joy script or the Affiliation-Love script. Clearly, possessing certain traits also leads to the development of certain types of scripts. Last but not least, it has also been suggested that individual differences in personality are linked to the creation and understanding of scripts (Neuberg and Newsom 1993). In the aforementioned paper, the researchers suggest that individual differences in the Personal Need for Structure (PNS) influence the desire to organize information into scripts – those scoring higher in PNS tend to structure information more strictly and stereotype others more. Although the nature of the connection between scripts and personality may be difficult to pinpoint, there can be no doubt that such a connection truly exists.


Formed from the experiences of past events, scripts are cognitive tools that aid information processing. Once internalized, scripts can influence how people perceive themselves and how they are perceived by others. However, personality can also determine the types of scripts people develop, which can in turn affect others’ beliefs about their personality. In time, these beliefs can become part of the self, once again influencing future behavior and script development. In a group context, people can adopt the scripts that encompass the characteristics of the group for the purpose of assimilation. Likewise, the enactment of group scripts can also inform others of group affiliation. Although scripts can be highly useful as cognitive shortcuts, they can also be problematic if taken too far, as is the case in racial profiling. Overall, it is important to remember that although scripts can be used across similar situations, they cannot always be used for people, regardless of how similar they may seem. Every individual is unique, and scripts cannot explain everything, which is something that we should always keep in mind.



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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of VictoriaVictoriaCanada

Section editors and affiliations

  • John F. Rauthmann
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of PsychologyWake Forest UniversityWinston-SalemUSA