External Reality and Subjective Experience

Last update: 21 August 2002

Most people recognize a difference between what happens in the external environment and what goes on inside their heads. Nevertheless, most people have some confusion between the two in that they tend to believe that what they perceive is accurate. It is only when external reality smacks us in the face (so to speak) that we become aware of the differences between the mental maps of our subjective experience and the actual territory, the external environment.


Perception is the act of using the senses to become aware of the environment: we see, we hear, we touch, we smell, and we taste. We use our perceptions to construct mental maps that help us make sense of what we have perceived. Mental maps become our beliefs about ourselves and the environment, and those beliefs that seem most important become our values. Based on our beliefs and values, we develop strategies for interacting with the external environment.

Although we all live in the same objective world (territory, external reality), each of us has a different subjective view (mental map) of the world. Because of this difference, our experiences of the same external environment differ. The map is not the territory. The mental maps we create, our subjective experiences, are different from the external reality on which they are based.

To paraphrase the seventeenth-century philosopher, René Descartes, we know we exist because we perceive. Perception is a complex subject worthy of book-length study. For the purpose of improving your communication, the critical aspects to be aware of are that (a) everyone’s perceptions (including yours) are less than perfect, (b) perceptions rarely include information that suggest that they are false, and (c) some perceptions are more accurate—more accurately represent external reality—than others.

Perceptions are less than perfect in three principal ways: Whenever we perceive, we engage in Deletion, Distortion, and Generalization.


Deletion of information occurs on at least two levels. First, we delete information because our physical senses are limited. Our senses developed as we evolved to focus on those aspects of the environment most important for our survival as a species.

Our eyes are capable of detecting only a small portion of the electromagnetic spectrum we call light. We cannot see things that are too small or too far away or when insufficient light is available. When it comes to seeing in the dark, humans are no match for cats or owls. Likewise, our senses of hearing, smell, and taste are simply not capable of perceiving everything in the external environment. Human hearing suffers in comparison with that of dogs and most other mammals, as does our sense of smell.

Second, our perceptions are influenced by the beliefs and values we have created based on previous perceptions. Once we believe something to be true, we have an almost infinite capacity to delete information that contradicts the belief. In fact, once we have a belief, we go through life searching for information that supports the belief and ignoring information that does not.

In many cases, the external environment contains ample evidence to support both—or all—beliefs about a subject. If, for example, you believe that most people are bad and will lie, cheat, steal, and otherwise injure you, you can find plenty of evidence in the news and in your daily encounters with others to support that belief. On the other hand, if you believe that most people are good and will behave in honest, caring, and courageous ways, you can find plenty of evidence to support that belief as well.


In addition to deleting information, we also distort much of what we actually do observe for at least two reasons. First, we distort because we do not observe the external environment completely, so we alter what we do perceive so that it makes sense—we tend to “fill in the blanks.” Second, we distort that which we perceive so that it will support our existing beliefs and values.

If we see strange lights in the sky at night, for example, it’s difficult to let it go at that. Because the natural human inclination is to assign meaning based on what we already believe, we will fill in details we did not actually observe so that what we saw makes sense to us. As a result, we turn the strange lights into gods, airplanes, flying saucers, meteors, weather balloons, parachuting crash dummies, or (insert your option here).


Some of the beliefs we create based on our perceptions are generalizations. Once we have observed something a few times—and how many times varies from individual to individual—we conclude that what has proved true in the past, will prove true in the future. The ability to generalize is extremely important to our survival. If you put your hand on a hot stove and are burned, you are able to generalize about the probable consequences of putting your hand on hot stoves in the future. Once you know how to drive a Ford (with left-hand drive and automatic transmission), you can probably drive a Chevrolet or Toyota (with left-hand drive and automatic transmission).

Some generalizations are, however, more useful than others. If we have one, two, or three bad experiences with members of the opposite sex, members of a different race, or a particular organization, we might jump to the conclusion that all members of the opposite sex or that race are bad or that the company can’t be trusted. We then filter future experiences through that belief, deleting information that contradicts it and distorting any information to support our belief.

Beliefs and Values

A belief is a certainty about the truth of something. A value is a belief (or set of related beliefs) to which we attach moral significance. If we believe that four-leaf clovers bring good luck, for example, we will spend time searching for and collecting them based on the degree to which we believe it and the value we place on good luck.

Beliefs and values accumulate over time. As children, we develop numerous beliefs about the nature of the world and our place in it. Beliefs are shaped by culture as a whole, by our parents and other family members, by our friends, by teachers in school, and by our individual experiences. Most of these beliefs operate below our level of conscious awareness so that we never question whether the belief is useful or the degree to which it is true.

Beliefs and values are hierarchical—we are more certain of some beliefs than we are of others, and some values are more important to us than others. In general, our behavior is most often influenced by our strongest, most closely held beliefs and most important values.

Beliefs and values can be considered rational to the degree they prove useful and contribute to our well-being. In general, there is a correlation between the usefulness of a belief and the degree to which the perceptions on which it is based correspond with external reality. If you are in Chicago and wish to drive to San Francisco, for example, you’ll find it more useful to believe that driving west will produce better results than driving east.


Driving west from Chicago to reach San Francisco is an example of a strategy, an action or action chain designed to produce a result. We use strategies to interact with the external environment. We develop strategies based on existing beliefs, and we create beliefs based on strategies that worked in the past.

If we have a strong belief, for example, that Rand McNally produces accurate highway maps, we might use a Rand McNally map to develop a successful strategy for driving from Chicago to San Francisco. If, on the other hand, we were able to get what we wanted from our parents by throwing temper tantrums and have developed the belief that such tantrums get us what we want, we may use that strategy at times and in places it will prove unsuccessful.

We have and use strategies for everything we do, and we develop new strategies when we learn to do new things—and we use our learning strategy when we do so. Strategies that we use with regularity become habits and often operate unconsciously, below our level of conscious awareness. When we brush our teeth, for example, we rarely stop to think about the strategy we use for doing so. To test the power of well-developed strategies, try brushing your teeth with your other hand, the one you do not normally use. See what happens when you try to develop a new strategy.

The same is true for communication. Changing your communication strategies can be just as difficult as changing the hand you use when you brush your teeth. Because we have been communicating all our lives, we have developed strategies to use when we communicate, and we tend to employ those strategies unconsciously, regardless of whether they are producing the results we desire. Further, because of the natural human abilities to delete, distort, and generalize, we tend to believe that our own communication strategy is adequate and that others are responsible for any problems that occur.

An Effective Communication Strategy

Communication between and among people depends on their ability to understand and respond to each other’s mental maps. Similarity in mental maps facilitates communication. People who share a language and culture usually communicate more easily and more effectively than those who don’t.

Similarities between people rarely cause communication problems. Differences, on the other hand, often result in difficulties. When you consider the nature of subjective experience and its relationship to external reality, it’s easy to see why this is the case:

Communication problems are rarely caused by external things or events. They are more typically caused by differences in subjective experience. If, for example, I were to say to you, “Coke tastes better than Pepsi,” while you believe that Pepsi tastes better than Coke, we might argue about which tastes better and why. In doing so, however, we would not be saying anything about either Coke or Pepsi—we would be talking about our mental maps, our subjective experience. Such differences often lead to win-lose arguments:   As long as we believe we are really talking about Coke and Pepsi, only one of us can be right. Right?

An effective communication strategy begins with an understanding that different people have created different mental maps. Developing an understanding of someone else’s map is known as pacing. We pace to gain understanding and establish rapport. When we understand the other person’s mental map and have established rapport, we can begin to lead the other person in a new direction. We can then create solutions to problems that allow both of us to achieve our outcomes, to blend outcomes and achieve a win-win solution. In many business situations, we then want to motivate the other person to help ensure that agreements will last. Such motivation is also known as future pacing.

For more information about an effective communication strategy, see Part 3: Communication Objectives.