A Map Is Not A Territory

“I have seas but no sharks, rivers but no water; forests but no birds; cities but no people. Who am I?”

My daughter nagged me with a riddle while I was busy taking pictures of the sky outside the plane window. The simple joy of flying after a long time enhanced with a beautiful setting of the sun outside the window had my attention. She nagged again and then she blurted the answer, “a map.” A map, the word, took my husband seated next to her, to the GPS in his car and how the car starts beeping at every point where he crosses the defined speed limit. His frustration came out animatedly especially when he talked about the speed limit of 30km/hr. 

Cars are getting designed with behavioural controls like alarm beeps if you cross a certain speed limit. These frameworks exist to guide and maneuver human behaviour. Google Maps and other inbuilt GPS systems work as useful guides through their easy, nearly accurate navigation systems unless they start beeping. At that moment, to get away with the annoyance, you remind yourself, a map is not the territory!

“A map is not the territory” is a statement coined by Alfred Korzybski. The mathematician presented this in a paper in 1931 in New Orleans. He used it to convey the fact that people often confuse models of reality with reality itself. In Korzybski’s words,

“A map may have a structure similar or dissimilar to the structure of the territory.” 

He meant that people in general do not have access to absolute knowledge of reality, but merely possess a subset of that knowledge that is then adapted through the lenses of their own experience. In today’s Habits for Thinking column, I want to bring your attention to a way of thinking which hinges around this concept that, ‘a map is not the territory.’

The map here means the tool to understand reality like theories and models. Like a physical map helps us to understand a space, similarly a mental map, is an abstract way of understanding things that our mind adapts to. To understand the complexity of a subject, the human mind creates a map or a model internally. It is just an understanding in a short form. What we have in our mind  may be flawed because it is just a version of the actual explanation. Secondly, it may be incomplete, as one can miss out on a point. Also, it may not be interpreted in totality as the reality. These understandings, that a model can be flawed or incomplete or under-interpreted reflects the understanding of the statement that the territory, the reality, can be different from the model. 

Let me explain to you how it impacts our lives: 

Several models of explanations that are in our head and in our workflows and decision making are just models. These are not realities. When we repeatedly get into the habit of using that model, without questioning or analysing them, we may not be able to identify the problem in our decision making and therefore may end up in a failed outcome. This stands true for both personal life and work life. 

An illustration in a personal life: 

In architecture and urban planning, there is a term called desire lines. What are desire lines? 

“Desire lines” are paths & tracks made over time by the wishes & feet of walkers, especially those paths that run contrary to design or planning. Free-will ways. Aka “cow-paths” & “Olifantenpad” (elephant trails) says Robert Macfarlane

These are essentially short cuts or paths made away from the actual path, or in absence of a path by walking through a hedge, or a sharp corner of green patch as the shortcut etc. Despite well laid walking paths, these human footprints made paths sprout in areas where they are not designed to be, all created by a certain human behaviour. People create desire paths for three primary reasons: time efficiency, experience, and resistance, in the sense that why would I do ‘X’, if I could do ‘Y’, as quoted in an article. Some places are left marked with desire-paths, but some well maintained urban places like manicured green lawns prevent pedestrian behavior crossing  by creating a series of design elements like rope fences or some extra pots and plants as vertical hindrances. 

Our mental models are also like that. We know we have to behave in a certain way but we find routes as shortcuts, like desire-lines. Because why not? And, sometimes that shortcut becomes a habit which gets difficult to change later. Take an example of a mother reprimanding his child for a misdeed and cancelling his screen time as a lesson and the other parent, the father, quietly letting the child watch the screen, because he is just a child. The map here is a discipline model and the child with his misdeed creates his desire-line. The mother aims to mend that desire-line created by the child by cancelling his screen time, but the other parent allows it. This leads to an altered model of discipline and ethics in the child’s mind. Small example, but it compounds over the years.

At workplaces:

At work places, in management, in education, models or frameworks are extensively used. These are great reference tools. However, these are not end goals but just tools to aid decision making. Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of Black Swan, Fooled by Randomness and other books does not believe in the entirety of a model.  

‘A model might show you some risks, but not the risks of using it. Moreover, models are built on a finite set of parameters, while reality affords us infinite sources of risks.’ 

Nassim Nicholas Taleb

He talks about a specific model used in investing called as VAR and how the model is limiting in its capacity. “It summarizes the expected maximum loss (or worst loss) over a target horizon within a given confidence interval. It is the uniqueness, precision and misplaced concreteness of the measure that bother me. I would rather hear risk managers make statements like -’at such price in such security A and at such price in security B, we will be down $150,000.’ They should present a list of such associated crisis scenarios without unduly attaching probabilities to the array of events.” He continues, “If financial engineering means the creation of financial instruments that improve risk allocation, then I am in favor of it. If it means using engineering methods to quantify the immeasurable with great precision, then I am against it.” 

Immeasurable is the keyword here. Many models that work on risk analysis do not have the capacity to measure the risk in entirety. However people still use and accept such models. Sometimes these inadequacies in the models cause failure. 

#Ideastoaction: A map is not a territory is a concept that needs to be used in the decision making process. 

  • Models, as explained, are maps that are not territories.
  • Through varied and unique experiences, these models develop desire-lines, which may lead to a good decision or a bad decision. 
  • When making decisions based on models, one must step back and understand if there could be flaws or incomplete interpretation. This will help in better decision making. 

Google Maps has introduced a few new features this March where it allows you to draw a missing lane or to share actual photos as updates of a place. Maps evolve to be flawless, so should decision making models. 

Leaving you with Nicholas Taleb’s statement:

Never cross a river because it is on average 4 feet deep.” 

Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Leave a Reply