NLP Presuppositions (1): The Map Is Not The Territory

Note: this is the first in an occasional series on the ‘presuppositions’ of NLP: the principles that you have to assume are true in order to make NLP work for you. In NLP we are not so bothered about proving whether the principles are objectively true or not; we are much more interested in whether they are useful.

NLP the map is not the territory mental filters
Click on the image for a larger version

Our conscious awareness has a limited number of ‘chunks of attention’ (many people say around 7, based on the psychologist George Miller’s paper ‘The Magical Number 7±2’: but in practice it’s more like 3 or 4 chunks).

So in order to make sense of the huge amount of information that our senses take in each moment from the world around us, we unconsciously filter it.

We have to do this filtering. If we didn’t, our brains would be overloaded and the world would appear as a booming, buzzing riot of smells, feelings and colours, just as it must appear to a new-born baby.

These are some of the filtering processes that our brain uses to protect us:

  • Deletion. We just don’t notice certain things, especially if we are not interested in them. So in every situation, there is more going on than you realise. Most of the information we delete may be irrelevant, but sometimes we overlook things that would help us if we noticed them.
  • Distortion. Psychologists have identified various ‘cognitive biases’ that distort our view of the world:
    • Confirmation Bias – we pay more attention to evidence that supports our beliefs, and downplay or ignore evidence that doesn’t.
    • The Bandwagon Effect – we are more likely to do or believe something when we see many other people doing or believing it.
    • Illusion of Control – we believe we can control or influence outcomes, even when we can’t.
    • The Halo Effect – if we like one quality or trait of a person or thing, we tend to view their other qualities or traits more favourably.
  • Generalisation. We look for commonality and predictability. What we expect to happen is influenced by our perceptions of previous events. For example, gamblers and stock market investors tend to see a ‘winning streak’ after three good results, even though ‘streaks’ are a natural feature of any random sequence (see ‘The Rule of Three’,

Usually, these ‘cognitive shortcuts’ work in our favour. Thinking is time-consuming, and expensive in energy terms. If we had to think every single thing we did through from first principles, we would be unable to act at all.

But sometimes, these shortcuts work against us – we miss relevant information, jump to conclusions, or view people through a lens of prejudice.

Some implications

What you experience is not reality. By the time you become aware of experiencing something, it’s already been filtered. So your ‘reality’, as you are experiencing it right now, is subject to the deletions, distortions and generalisations of your filters.

A good map is one that is useful. Since all maps leave out information, the real issue is not “Is this map true?” but “Is this map useful?” A map is useful to the extent that it helps you find your way to where you want to get to.

Yours is not the only truth. Each person has a different viewpoint. They will notice things that you have missed, and vice versa. Their view of ‘reality’ is as valid to them as yours is to you. People who believe that everyone sees the world in the same way that they do are setting themselves up for constant bewilderment; people who believe that others should see the world as they do are setting themselves up for constant disappointment.

People’s actions make sense from their map, which we can never fully know or understand. Often their actions would seem crazy or wrong when judged in the context of our map – so when coaching or communicating with them, suspend judgement.

Note: you can download a PDF version of the image for use in your own blog, presentation or manuals – free to use as long as you keep the attribution and URL in. Download from this link: The Map Is Not The Territory

An expanded version of this article is available as a Practical NLP Podcast episode: The Map Is Not The Territory

© 2009 – 2019, Andy Smith. All rights reserved.


  1. Paul Worswick


    Very well and clearly explained. Why is this sort of ‘stuff’ not on the school curriculum.

  2. Peter

    Excellent description of maps; thank you

  3. Using NLP principles 5: All behaviour is the best choice currently available - Coaching Leaders

    […] Post navigation ← Using NLP principles 4: I am in charge of my mind, and therefore my results Using NLP principles 5: All behaviour is the best choice currently available Posted on September 20, 2012 by Andy Smith Hello there! If you are new here, you might want to subscribe to the RSS feed for updates on this topic.Powered by WP Greet Box WordPress PluginThis principle or ‘presupposition’ of NLP can also be stated as ‘there is a positive intention behind every behaviour’ or ‘behaviour is purposeful, given the individual’s perception of the world’. So even if we don’t like the results of some behaviour that we or someone else is doing, the behaviour is the choice that makes most sense to that other person, or that part of us, given their perception of the world. […]

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