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Assumptive Worlds and the Stress of Traumatic Events: Applications of the Schema Construct

Published Online:https://doi.org/10.1521/soco.1989.7.2.113

Work on the psychological aftermath of traumatic events suggests that people ordinarily operate on the basis of unchallenged, unquestioned assumptions about themselves and the world. A heuristic model specifying the content of people's assumptive worlds is proposed. The schema construct in social cognition is used to explore the role of these basic assumptions following traumatic events. A major coping task confronting victims is a cognitive one, that of assimilating their experience and/or changing their basic schemas about themselves and their world. Various seemingly inappropriate coping strategies, including self-blame, denial, and intrusive, recurrent thoughts, are discussed from the perspective of facilitating the victim's cognitive coping task. A scale for measuring basic assumptions is presented, as is a study comparing the assumptive worlds of people who did or did not experience particular traumatic events in the past. Results showed that assumptions about the benevolence of the impersonal world, chance, and self-worth differed across the two populations. Findings suggest that people's assumptive worlds are affected by traumatic events, and the impact on basic assumptions is still apparent years after the negative event. Further research directions suggested by work on schemas are briefly discussed.