The Map is Not the Territory: How to Improve Your Judgment

In 1931, mathematician Alfred Korzybski presented a paper in which he introduced the idea that the map is not the territory.1 A map always comes with certain inherent problems. Here are some of its limitations:

  • A map can be wrong without you realizing it.
  • A map is by definition a reduction of the territory, which means it leaves out certain important information.
  • A map needs interpretation, which is a process that often leads to mistakes.
  • A map can be outdated and represent something that has changed or no longer exists.

The distinction between map and territory is a useful metaphor of the differences between impression and reality. What you think something is like differs from what it’s really like.

The Map is Not the Territory

Imagine, for example, that you’re checking out the social media profile of an acquaintance. Browsing through her countless updates of happy pictures, you conclude that she has to be a happy person.

But the map is not the territory. The life she’s portraying on social media says little about what her life is really like.

And there are many other examples of where we tend to confuse the map with the territory.

A commercial is not the product. An online dating profile is not the person. A documentary is not the complete picture. A resume is not the applicant. A test score is not your intelligence.

Perception is Not Reality

On a deeper level, your perceptions of reality can also be considered maps.

You brain takes what you perceive through your senses and creates maps of reality written in neural patterns. And that kind of map is just as problematic as any other.

Why? Well, firstly, our senses are neurologically limited and only operate within a certain bandwidth. Our brains are not equipped to perceive the full range of reality. Which is why, for example, we can’t hear the ultrasonic sounds of a bat.

Secondly, our minds are heavily influenced by cognitive biases that distorts our thinking and logical fallacies that derail our reasoning. Which is why, for example, we unduly favor information that confirms our existing beliefs.

So as we create our inner representations of the external world, we do so using incomplete and distorted information. As a result, we often end up with beliefs that don’t match up with reality.

Treat Maps as Maps

A map is never the same as the territory, and most of us struggle to make that distinction. In the words of author Shane Parrish:

“For many people, the model creates its own reality. It is as if the spreadsheet comes to life. We forget that reality is a lot messier. The map isn’t the territory. The theory isn’t what it describes, it’s simply a way we choose to interpret a certain set of information. Maps can also be wrong, but even if they are essentially correct, they are an abstraction, and abstraction means that information is lost to save space.” 2

Be skeptical of maps. Remember their limitations. And always be willing to switch them out whenever you find a better one.

That way, you’ll be less rigid in your thinking and more accurate in your judgments. And that’s a great foundation for making intelligent decisions.

Footnotes

  1. A Non-Aristotelian System and its Necessity for Rigour in Mathematics and Physics by Alfred Korzybski
  2. The Map Is Not the Territory by Shane Parrish

This article is an excerpt from my book The Decision-Making Blueprint.