The Map Is Not The Territory
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The Map Is Not The Territory

What would happen if you walked around your house wearing a blindfold? The chances are that you would find yourself walking into walls, bumping into furniture, and tripping over things. But despite these accidents, you would still be able to avoid some of the furniture and walls, you would know which room you were in, and you would be able to navigate your way around the house. It's as though you had a map of your house inside your head that you could read and follow so that you could find your way around.

Now, what would happen if I walked around your house blindfolded. I would have no idea where I was, which room I was in, where the walls and furniture were located. I would probably end up very bruised and battered. I don't have a map of your house inside my head, so I would have to make one up. And because I have never seen inside your house, my map would probably resemble the inside of my house more that the inside of yours. It's because my made-up map of your house is so inaccurate that I keep bumping into things.

This idea of a map inside the head is very useful for considering the way we relate to each other and to the outside world. Each of us has a map inside our head that describes the things outside our head. The maps inside our head represent the territory outside our head. These maps tell us not only where things are, but what they are, and whether or not we like them.

You have a map inside your head for football, for music, for other people, for the environment, for the government, for yourself, for life. In fact you have a map inside your head for everything that you can think of. As soon as you think of anything you either consult the map you already have of it, or you create a new map for it, just as I had to create a map of your house to navigate my way around it.

The map is not the territory
There are three points that need to be made about maps. Firstly, no map is 100% accurate. All maps contain at least some degree of error. No map can contain every detail of even the simplest objects. Even if you devoted a lifetime to studying a single grain of sand you would not know everything there was to know about it. Your knowledge about its age, its past history, where it had been, where it was going, how long it would survive in its present state would all be merely approximate.

Similarly, the things about which you have intimate knowledge, the layout of your house for example, are still only approximate. How many millimetres from your front door is your kitchen sink? What is the precise angle of your dining table in relation to your bed, 10 degrees, 20, 40 or 136.396542?

How accurate is your map of your parents, your children or your partner? You cannot possibly know everything there is to know about them. Nor can you know everything that there is to know about yourself. If the maps of things we know well are imprecise and limited, imagine how messed up our maps are of things about which we know very little.

Secondly, no two people's maps are the same. If you and I both look at the same motorcycle we will each form a different map of the bike. You will form the map of a bright, shiny freedom machine, I will form the map of a noisy death-trap. If we listen to the same piece of music you will form the map of a beautiful melody, I will form the map of an awful din. When we vote in an election you will look at your map of the candidate and see an arrogant buffoon, my map of the same candidate will show a progressive reformer.

In each case the territory is the same. The motorcycle, the music, and the candidate remain the same, but we see different maps. Your map of the motorcycle is imprecise and limited, so is mine. Your map of the music is imprecise and limited, so is mine. Your map of the candidate is imprecise and limited, so is mine. With all these inaccuracies and limitations it's no wonder that we see things differently. If we all had accurate maps we would all see things the same, but we don't.

Thirdly, we react to the map inside our head, not the territory outside our head. We react to the map not to what the map represents. So, if your map tells you that a certain piece of music is pleasant you will listen to it. If my map tells me that the same piece of music is unpleasant I will not listen to it. It is not the music that you are drawn to and I am repelled by, it is our map of the music.

When choosing how to vote in an election we look not to the candidates but to our maps of the candidates. If your map shows one candidate as an arrogant buffoon, you probably won't vote for him. If my map shows the same candidate as a progressive reformer, I probably will vote for him. In each case, it is not the candidate we vote for or against, it is our map of the candidate.

A test of your sanity
All of us have maps inside our heads that represent the territory outside our heads. Our maps are imprecise and limited, they vary from person to person even when they describe the same territory, and we all react to our maps not to the territory they represent.

For most of us, our maps are sufficiently accurate to get by on. But many people in our community have maps that are so inaccurate that they need help to survive. Their maps show a world that is completely out of touch with reality. They hear voices when no one speaks, they see things that aren't there, they feel threatened by non-existent predators. Many of these people have maps so inaccurate they have to be hospitalised for their own safety, and sometimes the safety of the community.

Seriously inaccurate maps lead to seriously inappropriate behaviour. Less seriously inaccurate maps lead to behaviour that is foolish and self-defeating. On the other hand, the more accurate your map is, the better equipped you are to function within society. The accuracy of your map is a measure of your sanity.

From time to time we find that the territory doesn't match our map. In other words we become aware of the inaccuracy of the map. What do we do then? The sane thing to do would be to change our map to match the territory. But for far too many people this seems too hard and so they demand that the territory change to fit the map. And when the territory doesn't change to fit the map they become angry or afraid or depressed.

Nobody has a completely accurate map. Our maps become distorted by our upbringing and our genes. Our interests and our attitudes also play a part in limiting and distorting our maps. But we also contribute to the distortion by the way we form our maps.

Most of us have developed lazy habits in our map drawing technique. We jump to conclusions with little or no evidence, we ignore parts of the territory and only see what we want to see, we see things in purely black and white while ignoring the various shades of grey in between, we apply labels to people and situations and then refuse to see beyond the label.

It takes effort to improve the accuracy of your maps, but the effort is worth it. The more accurate your map is the longer you are likely to live, and the happier you will be. You will enjoy rewarding relationships with others and achieve more of your goals in life. And you will make less of a fool of yourself.

As noted above, we never have an exact knowledge of the world, we only have our perceptions, interpretations and evaluations to go by; in other words we form mental maps of the territories that we are considering. Consequently we should bear in mind the following guidelines.

Our 'maps' are incomplete. We never know all the details of the territory. Therefore whenever we make a statement of any kind we would be well advised to remember the limitations of our knowledge and remind ourselves that we don't know everything there is to know on the subject.

  1. We live in a world that is not black and white, but has many shades of grey. Therefore, we should remind ourselves that nothing is all good, or all bad; it is all a matter of degree. Short-tempered bosses who behave insensitively are not 100% bad; they still have some good points.
  2. We influence our maps. In other words, because of our upbringing, our genes or our values, we all see things differently. There is no guarantee that the way I see things is the way that they really are. I should remember that my maps are jaundiced by my own interpretations.
  3. We live in a world where no two things are identical. But we often consider two or more things to be identical because they have the same label. One American is not the same as another American, just because they are both Americans.
  4. Our world is constantly changing so our maps are practically obsolete. To keep up to date we need to constantly review the territory, rather than rely on yesterday's map. Just because you crashed your car last week, doesn't mean that you will crash it again next week.
  5. Any particular person or thing may act differently when put in new circumstances. Nothing exists in isolation; everything is affected by surrounding conditions. You might appear ignorant when discussing anthropology with a professor of that subject, but seem like a genius when discussing it with your friends who know nothing about anthropology.

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