The Map is Not the Territory

What’s a map or a model?

A map or model describes a territory in a useful way and with a specific purpose. For example, the territory a subway map describes is the subway stops along the subway route. It’s useful in that it describes the subway path in a condensed, abbreviated form that’s easy to follow. The purpose of the map is to get you from point ‘A’ to point ‘B.’

Another example of a model is the Socratic Method. The method exposes a fallacy by repeatedly posing questions. This results in a description of the person’s thoughts surrounding the subject in question. Consequently, the individual discovers their error without causing distress. The purpose of the method is to expose error and render truth.

How are maps and models useful?

We need maps and models to serve as guides. They reduce complexity to simplicity which allows us to better explain and predict our world. Using the example of the subway map, imagine it mapped in detail, similarly to a road map. It would hold too much information to be useful. The map reduces the complexity of the path the subway takes. The map becomes more compact, making it easier to explain and predict where the subway is going.

What are the limitations?

We’ve introduced what maps and models are and how they’re useful. Now let’s discuss the mental model this post is about, The Map is Not the Territory. When using maps and models we need to be careful because they’re imperfect. One of the things that make maps effective is that they simplify the territory, but we run into problems when we forget that the map is not the territory.

Let’s look at 3 limitations of maps and models:

  • We forget that maps are abstractions.
    • The territory isn’t the map. The subway map tells us the order of the stops and their names, but it doesn’t tell us what’s at each stop, what the neighborhood is like, or where we are in relation to the rest of the city.
  • Territories don’t remain static.
    • The world is dynamic and our maps and models can drift from representing reality, which makes them less useful. Imagine using a roadmap from 50 years ago. It wouldn’t reflect the changes in the roads over the years.
  • The map doesn’t tell us everything.
    • Since the map or model is a representation of the territory, it can’t include everything. Imagine following a set of instructions for installing macOS on an external drive. The installer asks you to choose which drive to install the operating system. The instructions don’t say anything about how to identify different hard drives. You take your chances and pick the wrong drive, destroying all files on your computer.

How do we avoid these limitations?

  • We need to remember that models are representations and never tell the whole story about what they represent.  Don’t rely on a subway map to show you the way to the museum.  Take a city map with you.
  • We need to keep in mind that the territory changes and our model or map may not reflect that. Therefore, update the map or model as the territory changes.
  • People make maps and models and they’re a reflection of their knowledge, values, and limitations. As a result, the map may not contain all that we need to know. So, when we make mistakes, we need to update our maps and models to correct them.

To learn more about mental models see our Critical Thinking Resource page.


  • Mental Models and Critical Thinking: Learn Problem Solving Techniques and Improve Self Confidence. Develop The Art of Decision Making, Boost Your Productivity and Become a Better Critical Thinker, by Dale Martin
  • The Great Mental Models Volume 1: General Thinking Concepts, by Shane Parrish

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