Explaining “map and territory” and “fundamental attribution error” to a broad audience

by Gleb_Tsipursky6 min read9th Jan 201513 comments


Personal Blog



I am working on a blog post that aims to convey the concepts of “map and territory” and the “fundamental attribution error” to a broad audience in an engaging and accessible way. Since many people here focus on these subjects, I think it would be really valuable to get your feedback on what I’ve written.


For a bit of context, the blog post is part of the efforts of Intentional Insights to promote rational thinking to a broad audience and thus raise the sanity waterline, as described here. The target audience for the blog post is reason-minded youth and young adults who are either not engaged with rationality or are at the beginning stage of becoming aspiring rationalists. Our goal is to get such people interested in exploring rationality more broadly, eventually getting them turned on to more advanced rationality, such as found on Less Wrong itself, in CFAR workshops, etc. The blog post is written in a style aimed to create cognitive ease, with a combination of personal stories and an engaging narrative, along with citations of relevant research and descriptions of strategies to manage one’s mind more effectively.


This is part of our broader practice of asking for feedback from fellow Less Wrongers on our content (this post for example). We are eager to hear from you and revise our drafts (and even published content offerings) based on your thoughtful comments, and we did so previously, as you see in the Edit to this post.


Below the line is the draft post itself. After we get your suggestions, we will find an appropriate graphic to illustrate this article and post it on the Intentional Insights website. Any and all suggestions are welcomed, and thanks for taking the time to engage with us and give your feedback – much appreciated!


Where Do Our Mental Maps Lead Us Astray?


So imagine you are driving on autopilot, as we all do much of the time. Suddenly the car in front of you cuts you off quite unexpectedly. You slam your brakes and feel scared and indignant. Maybe you flash your lights or honk your horn at the other car. What’s your gut feeling about the other driver? I know my first reaction is that the driver is rude and obnoxious.

Now imagine a different situation. You’re driving on autopilot, minding your own business, and you suddenly realize you need to turn right at the next intersection. You quickly switch lanes and suddenly hear someone behind you honking their horn. You now realize that there was someone in your blind spot and you forgot to check it in the rush to switch lanes. So you cut them off pretty badly. Do you feel that you are a rude driver? The vast majority of us do not. After all, we did not deliberately cut that car off, we just failed to see the driver. Or let’s imagine another situation: say your friend hurt herself and you are rushing her to the emergency room. You are driving aggressively, cutting in front of others. Are you a rude driver? Not generally. You’re merely doing the right thing for the situation.

So why do we give ourselves a pass, while attributing an obnoxious status to others? Why does our gut always make us out to be the good guys, and other people bad guys? Clearly, there is a disconnect between our gut reaction and reality here. It turns out that this pattern is not a coincidence. Basically, our immediate gut reaction attributes the behavior of others to their personality and not to the situation in which the behavior occurs. The scientific name for this type of error in thinking and feeling is called the fundamental attribution error, also called the correspondence bias. So if we see someone behaving rudely, we immediately and intuitively feel that this person IS rude. We don’t automatically stop to consider whether an unusual situation may cause someone to act this way. With the driver example, maybe the person who cut you off did not see you. Or maybe they were driving their friend to the emergency room. But that’s not what our automatic reaction tells us. On the other hand, we attribute our own behavior to the situation, and not our personality. Much of the time we feel like we have valid explanations for our actions.

Learning about the fundamental attribution error helped me quite a bit. I became less judgmental about others. I realized that the people around me were not nearly as bad as my gut feelings immediately and intuitively assumed. This decreased my stress levels, and I gained more peace and calm. Moreover, I became more humble. I realized that my intuitive self-evaluation is excessively positive and that in reality I am not quite the good guy as my gut reaction tells me. Additionally, I realized that those around me who are unaware of this thinking and feeling error, are more judgmental of me than my intuition suggested. So I am striving to be more mindful and thoughtful about the impression I make on others.

The fundamental attribution error is one of many problems in our natural thinking and feeling patterns. It is certainly very helpful to learn about all of these errors, but it’s hard to focus on avoiding all of them in our daily life. A more effective strategy for evaluating reality more intentionally to have more clarity and thus gain greater agency is known as “map and territory.” This strategy involves recognizing the difference between the mental map of the world that we have in our heads and the reality of the actual world as it exists – the territory.

For myself, internalizing this concept has not been easy. It’s been painful to realize that my understanding of the world is by definition never perfect, as my map will never match the territory. At the same time, this realization was strangely freeing. It made me recognize that no one is perfect, and that I do not have to strive for perfection in my view of the world. Instead, what would most benefit me is to try to refine my map to make it more accurate. This more intentional approach made me more willing to admit to myself that though I intuitively and emotionally feel something is right, I may be mistaken. At the same time, the concept of map and territory makes me really optimistic, because it provides a constant opportunity to learn and improve my assessment of the situation.

Now, what are the strategies for most effectively learning this information, and internalizing the behaviors and mental patterns that can help you succeed? Well, educational psychology research illustrates that engaging with this information actively, personalizing it to your life, linking it to your goals, and deciding on a plan and specific next steps you will take are the best practices for this purpose. So take the time to answer the questions below to gain long-lasting benefit from reading this article:

  • What do you think of the concept of map and territory?
  • How can it be used to address the fundamental attribution error?
  • Where can the notion of map and territory help you in your life?
  • What challenges might arise in applying this concept, and how can these challenges be addressed?
  • What plan can you make and what specific steps can you take to internalize these strategies?



13 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 6:21 PM
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First, I don't like the image at the top of the page. Knowing about map-territory I can see what it's trying to say, but without that knowledge it basically looks Masonic. I found the images in this post to be far more evocative (obviously a lot more work was put into them, but it could be inspiration).

Second, I feel that the article is not speaking to the needs of the audience that well. You say that this is targeted to youth and young adults, so I'm going to assume this will mostly be high school and college student age ranges. Consider this:

This decreased my stress levels, and I gained more peace and calm. Moreover, I became more humble.

When I was at that stage of my life, I wasn't looking for peace and calm, or to reduce my stress levels (in fact, being humble in high school and college is maladaptive, and many/most people who read Less Wrong needed more confidence, not more humility, and this probably applies to other people who would read rationality literature). I think people don't realize those things are worthwhile when they are that young, so they aren't emotionally resonant.

I also think the car metaphors aren't great for targeting this age group. Many people in high school and college don't drive very frequently, so they haven't had time to reflect on the feelings of road rage very deeply. Most of them haven't had a long daily commute, for example, even if they drive the likely short distance to school.

Part of what makes the sequences appealing is that they tell you that you can be awesome, and they give the impression that you're learning things that no one else knows. Of course, if the sequences were enough then we could just point everyone at them, but it's probably worthwhile to have learning materials that covers more niches. That said, my impression on reading this article is that it's just pretty "milquetoast" and I wouldn't go out of my way to read more articles of this type. I think more concrete, evocative examples of how understanding the fundamental attribution error has improved your life could make it better. As it is the only examples are extremely broad generalities.

This is a great start, and I found the actual explanation clear, I just think it needs reworking, or perhaps you just need more practice writing to find your "voice."

Edit: I also don't think that combining map-territory and fundamental attribution error the way it is here really works for me. The connection between the two requires more explanation than it's given. I don't think you can assume people will follow the links to internalize the full picture. And as a sidenote, I am also not in love with the idea of putting a bunch of questions at the end of the article. Makes it seem like a textbook, and if people are actually going to engage with the questions (which is very difficult to get people to do without explaining the benefits of such) then they should probably be sprinkled throughout.

Appreciate the constructive criticism, thank you!

Regarding the car and stress examples, I used them a number of times in presenting this material to college students (I am a professor at Ohio State), such as in this video. I got pretty good feedback from students about them. For example, one student wrote in an anonymous feedback form ""I really enjoyed the workshop. It helped me to see some of the problems I may be employing in my thinking about life and other people... Something I gained from this workshop are tools to help me be a less stressed-out person." This is one of several data points I have indicating that students benefit from tools for less stress. For the road rage in particular, studies show that youth are particularly prone to road rage.

However, I don't want to trust what I already know about young people. On the Intentional Insights Advisory Board, we have the leader of the Secular Student Alliance, a national organization that has over 300 student clubs as affiliates around the country. We are working with them to bring rationality content to a young audience. So I'll run the article by them and see what they think.

The questions at the end are aimed to get people to think about the material and leave comments, it's worked well in our past blogs, but I'll keep an eye on this and experiment, thanks for pointing it out!

[-][anonymous]7y 5

Your mind is either inside reality or outside reality. If your mind is outside reality, and if a second mind also outside of reality could observe both your mind and reality, the second mind could make a statement about how much your mind does and does not match reality.

It is not the case that your mind or a second mind is outside of reality. Therefore you lack certainty about how much your mind matches reality. Your mind might match the not-mind majority part of reality without your knowing. An analogy of this from Karl Popper is standing in an unfamiliar city looking at a map to find a destination without knowing you are at the destination you seek.

The problems of maps (also from Popper) is a 1:1 map is too large to be useful and anything less is incomplete. Thus a map is a useful tool and one of many tools. The ability to note when a map is inaccurate or incomplete or in some way objectionable is another skill. To search for better maps, another skill. To preserve maps that work to some degree, another skill.

Thank you, these are useful ideas for a much more expanded article on Map and Territory! We already have some folks at InIn who are working up ideas for an expansion blog post that deals with M+T as such, I'll point them to your comment.

Looks like a pretty good start to me.

My prior is that the biggest issue facing an organization like Intentional Insights is marketing/actually having your memes go viral. I'd be curious if you want to share your marketing strategy. (I've been reading about marketing a lot lately and I might be able to give you feedback.)

I'd be happy to get your feedback on our marketing strategy! Indeed, we've found this is the biggest challenge for us. Once people engage with our content, they are excited about it, the question is how to get them to engage in the first place.

E-mail me at gleb@intentionalinsights.org and I'll send you our current thoughts on our marketing strategy.

This reminded me of a strong connection. I did the Landmark Forum a long time ago, and one of the main things they taught was 'Story'. It is basically the Map/Territory distinction, and it's usually applied to the Fundamental Attribution Error.

As in, remember to distinguish the parts of what you think that are more or less made up (that's your story about them). I think they may have used the exact driving example you did.

I'm a bit rusty on it, but there are several distinctions that line up pretty well to LW-style rationality points, like

  • 'Empty and Meaningless' <-> Materialism + 'Joy in the Merely Real'
  • 'stand' <->'Tsuyoku naratai' (sp?)

... I forget the others

Thanks for the connection! If I remember correctly, I used the driving example because it was in Kahneman's Thinking Fast and Slow, and likely he took it from elsewhere as well. Good and clear example to use.

BTW, if you have any links to the Landmark Forum "Story" example, please share them, it would be useful for me, and I imagine for others as well.

The Landmark Forum is done in-person. They rather make a point to not doing their stuff in other media to avoid IP headaches, since they're explicitly for-profit, not mainly in it to raise the sanity waterline (though I expect they would like that too).

Other examples of story are, say, dealing with rejection (for a job, for a role, romantically, even simply declining to join an event) by remembering that it was probably due to contingent local factors and even if it wasn't it probably isn't personal... avoiding Learned Helplessness... basically getting to be more comfortable with not knowing rather than making something up, especially unpleasant things.

Story wasn't usually applied to taking off the rose-colored glasses, though it could be.

Heh. I remember they had lots of people saying they were a cult for equally stupid reasons, but the accusations were even more hyperbolic than the accusations LW has received. Not a single one of them applied to anything I experienced there.

Thanks for sharing those ideas! I'll put the examples you suggested of the Story into the pool of content that we use at Intentional Insights to write the blog posts, much appreciated!

I'm not aware of LW being called a cult, sad to learn that there are some people who do that. Oh well, such is life.

Why do you think that the fundamental attribution error is a good point where to start someone's introduction in rational thinking? There seems to be a clear case of the Valley of bad rationality here. Fundamental attribution is a powerful psychological tool. It allows us to take personal responsibility for our successes while blaming the environment for our failures. Now assume that this tool is taken away from a person, leaving all his/her other beliefs intact. How exactly would this improve his/her life?

I also don't get why thinking that "the rude driver probably has his reasons too, so I should excuse him" is a psychologically good strategy, even assuming it is morally right.

About map vs. reality. Not sure why it has to be put together with FAE, as it's a much more general topic. And your explanation is not the the first one I've seen about this topic that leaves a big "so what?" question hanging in the air. At the face value, it seems to say that "people often confuse the idea of an apple with an apple in their hand". Now clerarly that is not the case for anyone, perhaps except the most die-hard Platonists. Even if it would be so, why should the aspiring rationalist care?

I think negative examples would be really strong here. Teaching about the perils of magical thinking and wishful thinking would be a good start. Only after giving a few compelling concrete examples it makes sense to generalize and speak at a more abstract level. It also seems that many aspiring rationalists / high IQ persons are especially vulnerable to the trap of building elaborate mental models of something, and then failing to empirically test them by experiencing the raw reality.

Apologize for being unclear: this post is one in a series of posts, not the first, so it's not an introduction to rational thinking. Here is the blog post that we already published that introduces people to the idea of agency as a key overarching framework, and here is another blog post that does the same with System 1 and 2. These are the introductory blog posts, and now we are doing some further elaboration on rational thinking.

Regarding the specific case of the FAE, I presented on this bias to my students (I'm a college professor at Ohio State), for example in this video and had nice feedback. One wrote in an anonymous form that "With relation to the fundamental attribution error, it can give me a chance to keep a more open mind. Which will help me to relate to others more, and view a different view of the “map” in my head.” My experiences presenting to students informs this blog post. However, I will keep in mind what you said about the valley of bad rationality, that's a good point - I'll run the article by some beginner rationalists and see what they think about the issue.

Can you clarify your point about negative examples, I'm not quite clear on what you mean.

Thanks a lot for the constructive criticism, really helpful!