The early-20th-century Polish philosopher Alford Korzybski is remembered today for one brilliant line:
A map is not the territory it represents.
So, for example, what's the image above? Our first thought might be "the United States." But that's wrong, of course, as a moment's reflection makes clear. The image above is a recreated representation of a digital file of a photograph of a paper map of the United States. It's an abstraction of an abstraction--and it is decidedly not the actual territory it represents.
I find this concept invaluable as an executive coach and teacher who often helps my clients and students interpret research from social psychology and neuroscience and apply those findings to their own lives. I try to keep up with current research and integrate it into my practice and my teaching--I think that's one of the essential functions I serve as a coach and teacher.
And I seek to create an environment in coaching sessions and in my classroom that encourages people to be open to what the data might tell them about themselves, particularly when it confounds their expectations or challenges their self-image. But another role I serve is helping people become better-informed consumers of research, so I also stress to clients and students that we can be too open to such data because we're highly susceptible to the influence of anything we perceive as "scientific," particularly the results of instruments or assessments.
This dynamic is a manifestation of Robert Cialdini's finding that we tend to obey authority and defer to experts, and like many such principles it's a useful and occasionally problematic heuristic. We can and should rely on expertise, and I emphatically reject the current wave of anti-expert populism that would have us believe that no experts are trustworthy and no research findings are reliable.
But our deference to authority can certainly get us into trouble, and it's important to find a balance when we're exploring social science research in order to gain some insights into our individual experience. I often see clients and students who are anxious about research findings which suggest that they're "not normal" in some way or deviate from some desirable standard.
In these cases I encourage them to bear Korzybski in mind: A map is not the territory it represents. All research findings are maps, of one sort or another, that aspire to guide us through territory we have not fully explored, from the depths of our own psyche to universal human traits, and while maps are useful tools, we must not confuse them with the territory itself. So what can we do?
All maps look authoritative, so we should learn something about the author.
First, we should be mindful of our tendency to be influenced by authority, and even just describing data as "credible research" gives it an authoritative heft. Again, I'm not suggesting that we adopt a reflexive anti-expert stance, but understanding the psychological dynamics at work will allow us to be more thoughtful about whose influence we choose to accept. (Cialdini's classic HBR article is a great place to begin studying the principles of influence, and I highly recommend his book.)
Some maps are better than others.
Inquiring into an authority's credibility helps us begin to see more clearly the distinctions among 1) settled science, 2) unsettled science, 3) educated assertion, 4) mere opinion, and 5) total bullshit. These categories are fluid and indistinct, of course, and ideas travel across the spectrum over the course of time, but we're well-served when we acknowledge that some ideas we view as facts are really just opinions, and some questions we still consider up for debate have been firmly resolved.
The map is not the territory.
Finally, remember that general conclusions drawn from research typically apply to a mythical creature--the "average person" in the population being studied--and as individuals we may differ quite widely from that conception. As I tell my clients and students, we should be open to what research data might tell us about ourselves, particularly if we find its message unexpected, and we should never let the findings from a study or the results of an assessment dictate to us who we are as individuals.
Note: As I've written before, the source of the line from Korzybski is his 1933 book Science and Sanity. It's not widely read today (I've only skimmed online excerpts), and people interested in his theories are often referred to the more coherent and accessible Language in Thought and Action, by S.I. Hayakawa (which I highly recommend); in the preface to the 5th edition Hayakawa cites Korzybski as his primary influence.
Photo by Sue Clark. Yay Flickr and Creative Commons.