||Highlights •Fuzzy cognitive mapping (FCM)can help to improve agricultural policy design. •We analyse the views on regulation between farmers and non-farmers. •We demonstrate the utility of FCM in disentangling reasons for non-compliance. •Non-compliance is a result of dis-alignment of views rather than unwillingness. •FCM offers a critical, reflexive approach to how a regulatory process is conceived. Agricultural environmental regulation often fails to deliver the desired effects because of farmers adopting the related measures incorrectly or not at all. This is due to several barriers to the uptake of the prescribed environmentally beneficial farm management practices, most of which have been well established by social science research. Yet it is unclear why these barriers remain so difficult to overcome despite numerous and persistent attempts at the design, communication and enforcement of related agricultural policies. This paper examines the potential of fuzzy cognitive mapping (FCM) as a tool to disentangle the underlying reasons of this persistent problem. We present the FCM methodology as adapted to the application in a Scottish case study on how environmental regulation affects farmers and farming practice and what factors are important for compliance or non-compliance with this regulation. The study compares the views of two different stakeholder groups on this matter using FCM network visualizations that were validated by interviews and a workshop session. There was a farmers group representing a typical mix of Scottish farming systems and a non-farmers group, the latter comprising professionals from the fields of design, implementation, administration, consulting on and enforcement of agricultural policies. Between the two groups, the FCM process reveals a very different perception of importance and interaction of factors and strongly suggests that the problem lies in an institutional failure rather than in a simple unwillingness of farmers to obey the rules. FCM allows for a structured process of identifying areas of conflicting perceptions, but also areas where strongly differing groups of stakeholders might be able to gain common ground. In this way, FCM can help to identify anchoring points for targeted policy development and has the potential of becoming a useful tool in agricultural policy design and communication. Our results show the utility of FCM by pointing out how Scottish environmental regulation could be altered to increase compliance with the rules and where the reasons for the identified institutional failure might be sought.