How to overwrite your cognitive scripts

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Although we think we are fully aware and in control of our everyday decisions, we actually often follow a series of cognitive scripts. These cognitive scripts often develop in childhood and are personal to you. However, as they are commonly based on a sequence of events that we expect to occur in given situations, many scripts will follow a common theme.

For example, when meeting someone new, we know we are expected to give our name, ask the individual about themselves, partake in some small talk, and then move onto deeper topics. Although cognitive scripts can save time and reduce the mental effort of deciding how to behave, they can also negatively affect our decision-making and productivity.

How we automate decisions with cognitive scripts

Cognitive scripts are based on the semantic memory, or the knowledge we acquire throughout our lives. Semantic memory develops when we experience events in the everyday world, such as how to travel by public transport or the steps involved in eating in a restaurant. We organise our experiences into cognitive scripts that are personal to us, and these scripts may vary depending on our perception of a situation and the cultures we identify with.

In the 1970s, Roger Schank and Robert Abelson formulated the Cognitive Script Theory. They showed that through our own experiences, and by observing how others behave, we store the cognitive scripts in our memory and then retrieve those scripts when required to guide our behaviour.

A seminal study conducted in 1979 by Gordon Bower, John Black and Terrence Turner showed that cognitive scripts prompt the recall and recognition of things we already know. Participants were asked to describe the components of a particular “scene”, such as going to the dentist.

Participants largely agreed on the components of those scenes, mentioning similar characters, props, and actions, as well as the order in which these actions should occur. Because of our semantic memory of the common cognitive scripts in our lives, it is easy to recognise and recall these experiences, so we can predict similar ones in the future.

Cognitive scripts have been found to control our social behaviour to a certain extent. Learning by social observation and then storing cognitive scripts gives us an indication of what we can expect and what is expected of us in a certain situation. We build an internal catalogue of scripts so that we recognise how to behave in a diverse range of situations including at business meetings, when socialising, or even during a funeral.

Having inbuilt cognitive script means you can quickly interpret and understand the world around you. This allows for faster decision making, as there is no need to analyse every situation individually.

When eating in a restaurant, for example, you don’t have to make complex decisions because you already know the sequence of events and have a clear picture of your role as a customer. Subconsciously referring to a cognitive script therefore saves both time and energy in everyday life. But this everyday convenience comes at a cost.

When cognitive scripts might be unhelpful

Although cognitive scripts can speed up decision making, they’re not always helpful. The automated response when recognising a situation based on our previous experience means that we may act without truly thinking about our decisions, the background behind them, nor the consequences they may have.

Many of us exhibit patterns of behaviour that are a throwback to the behaviours formed as children in our family unit, or because of behaviours lived out in our current social environment.

For example, following a turbulent childhood, you may now hold the belief that people will always leave you. This may lead you to avoid building deep relationships in adulthood for fear that this will only lead to abandonment. Bringing these cognitive scripts from childhood into your current personal or professional relationships may therefore unnecessarily limit the connections you make as an adult. 

Even when cognitive scripts become unproductive or unhealthy, it can be difficult to break this automated way of acting. If your cognitive scripts include painful experiences of failure, you may avoid competitive workplace situations including applying for promotions or leading complex projects. The negative self-talk of this cognitive script will prevent you from striving as you repeat the same automated behaviours over and over.

It can also be difficult to stray from a cognitive script if you fear that you will lose your personal identity as a result. If you identify as a successful business leader, but the impact of working long hours and managing intense stress is making you miserable, it may be in your best interest to make a change. However, the thought of losing your identity can make you cling to this unhealthy, but ingrained, cognitive script.

Fortunately, it is possible to overwrite unhelpful cognitive scripts to improve your productivity and decision-making processes.

Overwriting unhelpful cognitive scripts

Because they are based on many experiences stored in our semantic memory, cognitive scripts are deep-rooted and challenging to modify. However, a few simple strategies can help you question your cognitive scripts and start overwriting the most unhelpful ones.

  • Make time to journal. By journaling, you can take note of recurring scripts and the consequences they have. If you have the chance to set up a new business, but your initial response is to reject the opportunity, identify the script you’re automatically following. Practice fear setting to list the pros and cons of this new venture to ascertain whether you’re consciously making a decision that’s right for you, or if you are following a cognitive script that’s outdated or unhealthy.
  • Update scripts that fail you. Some scripts will only work at certain times in our lives before we outgrow them. If you experienced rejection as a child, and now keep others at arm’s length as an adult, this cognitive script that once protected you may no longer be needed and could in fact be failing you. Update your cognitive script to start developing healthy relationships with those around you, for example by using self-affirmations to remind yourself that you can be a good friend, partner or colleague.
  • Inject randomness and measured risk. Going off script and taking risks may lead to surprising results. If you’ve always wanted to set up your own business, learn to fly a plane, or move to a new country, but have never taken action, it could be a good sign that a cognitive script is limiting your willingness to take risks. You can overwrite that script by experimenting with challenges outside of your perceived circle of competence, which will help you unlock new opportunities.

Cognitive scripts save time and energy by telling us how we should behave or act in certain situations, based on our prior experiences or social observations. However, these scripts can also be unhelpful if they stunt our growth, or lead to behaviours that are no longer healthy for us as individuals.

That’s why, while not all cognitive scripts are bad, it’s important to remain aware of them so that you can apply critical thinking to consider a script with intentionality. In this way, you can ensure the script is still benefiting you.

Despite following these steps, you may at first find it difficult to get rid of unhelpful cognitive scripts because they feel intrinsically tied to your identity. Changing the script will also take you out of your comfort zone. By regularly journaling, updating outdated or unhealthy scripts, and taking measured risks, it is possible to overwrite unhelpful cognitive scripts to promote healthy, productive behaviours.

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