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

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?