Understanding Mental Models – The Map Is Not The Territory

What is a Map?

Maps are reductions of what they represent. Do not take in the geographical sense only. Maps are more than geographical representations. Maps are simplifications of complex structures.

A map could be anything. A few examples –

  • Financial statements are maps. They represent all the transactions of an entity over a certain period and as of date.
  • A travel guide is a map. The help you navigate a large area.
  • A GPS is a map. It enables you to reach your destination.
  • An autobiography is a map. Years of life history compressed in a few pages.
  • Your perspective of another person could be a map too.

There is another perspective to define maps. Maps are our understanding of how the world works. Our understanding based on our five senses. When we say “Map is not the territory”, we mean that what we see may not be the reality.

What Are The Key Elements To Consider While Reading A Map?

The concept was coined by a Polish-American philosopher and scientist named Alfred Korzybski in 1831. He provided a list of elements to consider when understanding a map. They are as follows –

  • The map is not the actual territory. Map is just a static representation of an always flowing territory. It is our perception of reality, not the reality in itself.
  • Each map is created with a specific audience in mind. The map of the underground metro network is of no use to the metro operators. They are for the users. Architectural drawings can be understood by architects and engineers only, not by civilians.
  • There can be a map of a map. A map of a map of a map. An endless loop.

What Should You Consider When You Interpret A Map?

  • A map must be constantly updated. There must be a continuous feedback loop. Take a map of a city for example. If the map is 50 years old, there is a huge probability that it is of no use today. Consider another situation, you think that your friend has been ignoring you and not responding to you. In reality, he may be busy or stuck somewhere. Or thinking the same thing about you.
  • The perspective of the creator of the map must always be kept in mind while using the map. The creator or the cartographer may eliminate data which may not be useful to the users but may be very important for you. Each territory can have several maps created by keeping the users in mind. Lets take an example of maps created by Apple and Google. If you compare them, both of them may not be exactly same. What is important for google may not be important for Apple and vice-versa.
  • Often, maps may be created first which could influence the territory. A very simple example is of architectural designs and interior designs. These are maps which influence the outcome of the territory.

What Are The Limitations Of A Map?

  • A wrong interpretation of the map could lead to wrong conclusions. You must be very careful and understand why it was prepared before you use a map.
  • A map could be incorrectly prepared leading the user to be misguided. If the cartographer makes mistakes, the whole map goes for a toss.
  • Users continue to believe that the map represents the truest form of the territory and continue to use it. They forget that the map needs to be updated with regards to the territory.

Some reading recommendations

Shane Parrish has written a book on Mental Models. Most of my learning came from the book. Buy here.

Shane has a blog post on the farnam street blog. Read here.

Another book to understand this model is The Half-Life of Facts by Samuel Arbesman. Buy here. It’s a great book detailing how information gets outdated and why we need to constantly update our facts. Great reading. Let me know if are able to relate your learning from the book with this mental model.

A couple of videos to understand the model better

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