The Rumsfeld Behavioral Landscape

I made up an interesting way to visualize habits, routines and larger behavioral complexes in terms of Rumsfeld’s famous known, known-unknown and unknown-unknown typology.


Here’s how it works. Your basic building block is a habit, and these are either built around attractors or repulsors (the green and red contour sets respectively, with the green representing valleys and the red representing hills). Your behaviors are decision patterns that may orbit one or more habits in complex ways.

Here’s how you read/use the map (you can build a real one around your own habits of course, this is just an illustration).

The Rumsfeld Zones

In the known zone (dark gray inner zone), you have named patterns: behaviors you understand and consciously try to manage. To name something is to form an appreciative mental model of it. Named patterns are responses to basic attractions and repulsions but have a certain amount of metacognitive control going on, which makes the managed habits.

In the known unknown zone (light gray middle zone), you have unnamed patterns: structured and somewhat repetitive behaviors you dimly recognize are going on, but haven’t yet named, which means you have no appreciative mental models for them. Unnamed patterns are unmanaged responses to attractions and repulsions, so they are addictions or aversions. 

In the unknown unknown zone (white outer zone), patterns haven’t stabilized enough to be recognized, let alone named. So they aren’t yet even addictions or aversions that need management. Being in this behavioral zone feels like frustrating dissipation, since you can’t get a lock on a behavior pattern. It seems to achieve nothing unless the intention is play or idleness.

The boundaries between zones shift as more information enters the landscape and self-aware processing shifts habits via conscious insertion of new attractors/repulsors to shape the landscape. This is habit acquisition and it is quite hard.

Appreciative and Instrumental Aspects

The appreciative axis is at 12 o’ clock, the Rumsfeld labels are at 4 o’clock and the instrumental (or manipulative) labels are at 7 o’ clock on the diagram.

When you are awake and active, you’re in one of the three zones and using this map, you can recognize roughly where you are. Behavioral boundaries aren’t clean because the attractors/repulsors don’t neatly fall into one of the three zones, and because routines and larger behavior complexes are made up of multiple individual habits that occur in clusters, some of which may be named, some only recognized and some neither named nor recognized.

Exploration and Exploitation

Your behavior is exploratory to the extent it is in the outermost zone and exploitative to the extent it is in the middle zone. The middle zone is dangerous to be in because the patterns are stable enough that you can drain a lot of energy without getting anywhere, because the behavior is unmanaged.

Of course you need to have appropriate intention. To be very deliberative in the outer zone is a recipe for frustration. You must be playful to use that zone.  To be playful in the inner zone is a recipe for distraction. You must have relatively calm mental states there.

The middle zone is again dangerous. It’s neither exploration, nor exploitation. It’s a zone where you need to do demanding metacognition to recognize nascent habits and think about them. It’s a zone that demands self-awareness.

Breaks and Energy Drainage

When you take any sort of break (such as a nap or a short walk, but not something that requires disciplined habits like going to the gym) you lose your lock on the present attractors/repulsors around which your behavior is orbiting and get free in the interstitial zones (which would be watersheds and other features in the landscape, which I haven’t shown as contours). This allows you to reboot and retarget a new behavioral regime to be in.

Your physical energy is drained to the extent you are close to the core.  Your mental energy is drained to the extent you are closer to the periphery. The two draining/exhausting processes race each other and you stall if you run out of either. At that point, you’re forced to take a break to recover.

Clever map, huh? Shows a lot a very compactly.

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  1. No place for unkown knowns, Venkat, for what you know but don’t know that?

    • That would be a black hole at the center I think. Good point. Regime of unconscious mastery, shu-ha-ri. I think people often mystically romanticize KUs into UKs though.

  2. Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate. ~ C.G. Jung