Consider a map of North America… but don’t look at one! Instead, think about the United States and how a typical North American map would appear.
With that in mind, consider the following facts:
- Washington, DC is further north of San Fransisco
- New York is closer to Boston than Washington, DC.
- The prevailing direction of one’s travel from NY to Boston is east rather than north.
- Cape May, NJ is further south than Washington, DC.
- Albany, NY is north of Boston.
- Portland, OR is as far north as Montreal; Seattle is even further north.
- The westernmost portion of the Florida Panhandle is west of Chicago.
Why are these facts likely surprising when they’re squarely on the map? The answer has to do with squares and the brain.
“Mental Models,” as they’re known in Human Systems Theory, describes the way in which humans understand and internalize systems and interactions thereof.
Sometimes these models consist of fairly accurate representations; other times… not so much. What’s one such issue?
A common trend is the distortion of geography into rectilinear shapes (shapes where all edges are right angles). How does this manifest itself into our map example? In a common mental model of North America, the Southern portions of the East and West coasts get widened and the Northern border becomes a straight line across the top.
So, don’t blame yourself for the surprise. Blame your mental model.