q Whose map is it anyway? - Clean Change Company

Whose map is it anyway?

Introductory Articles

by Phil Swallow and Wendy Sullivan

Once we accept that we always affect a person with whom we interact, we can also realise that there are many ways to avoid clumsily trampling over another’s map and even attempting to re-write it for them.

The map is not the territory

‘The map is not the territory’ is one of the presuppositions of NLP.  The original version was written by Korzypski: “a map is not the territory it represents, but if correct, it has a similar structure to the territory, which accounts for its usefulness.”*

‘The map is not the territory’ directs attention to our experience of ‘reality’ and it applies in various ways.

Firstly, we have five senses through which we interact with the world and these senses are limited.  They do not take in everything, e.g. we can not hear a full range of sounds.  This means that the ‘map’ or model that we build of what’s actually out there (or ‘reality’) will always be limited because we do not have a full set of data from which to work.

Secondly, we are limited by the amount of information that we can take in at a time.  The well-known research of George Miller* determined that we can, on average, remember 5 – 9 numbers when we hear them as a list.  Beyond that, we are overloaded and can take no more in.  This experience of overload further affects our ability to have a complete sense of the territory.

Thirdly, even within the range of sounds, sights, smells etc. that we do experience, we each have our own personal filters that allow in only some of the information. The rest is deleted, distorted or generalised as we aim to make sense of the incoming information by filtering for patterns that match our culture, interests, language, values, beliefs, understanding of past and present contexts; in fact, everything we have learned in our lives.

The filtered information is used as a ‘re-presentation’ of a perceived reality that is unique to the individual.

You can see how, just like real maps, each person’s map of the territory has only some of the features of the territory, and will therefore be good for one purpose but not another, and risks becoming outdated if it is not regularly updated.

In summary, we perceive the territory (that is the world and our environment) via sensory input, we process the information by comparing it with our stored experience and we project meaning back out towards the territory and call it ‘reality’.  We then make our decisions based on that and behave in relation to it.  And because it is a constructed reality, we all have a different idea of what reality is.

Take this true story for example: Two people are driving along when one exclaims: “Look at that beautiful tree!”

At the same time, the other says ‘Look at that beautiful sports car!”

The first has not noticed the sports car and the second hasn’t noticed the tree, even though the car and tree are both within their field of vision.  Both of them have deleted what they are uninterested in and both assume – wrongly – that the other person is interested in seeing what they themselves find interesting.

We tend to assume that, because something in our map has a meaning for us, it will have the same meaning for others – and if it doesn’t, then it must be because they are wrong.  When one realizes that the other person is probably doing the same, then it is easy to see how misunderstandings and conflicts arise between people.

So, NLP suggests that it may be useful to keep in mind the concept of ‘the map is not the territory’.


* Korzybski, A, “Science and Sanity” The International Non-Aristotelian Library Publishing Company (distributed by the Institute of General Semantics) l933

* Miller, G. “The magic number 7 plus or minus 2: Some Limits on our Capacity to Process Information” Psychological Review (63), p 81-97, 1956

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