Polarized imagination: Partisanship influences the direction and consequences of counterfactual thinking

Kai Epstude*, Daniel A. Effron, Neal J. Roese

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

3 Scopus citations


Four studies examine how political partisanship qualifies previously documented regularities in people's counterfactual thinking (n = 1186 Democrats and Republicans). First, whereas prior work finds that people generally prefer to think about how things could have been better instead of worse (i.e. entertain counterfactuals in an upward versus downward direction), studies 1a-2 find that partisans are more likely to generate and endorse counterfactuals in whichever direction best aligns with their political views. Second, previous research finds that the closer someone comes to causing a negative event, the more blame that person receives; study 3 finds that this effect is more pronounced among partisans who oppose (versus support) a leader who 'almost' caused a negative event. Thus, partisan reasoning may influence which alternatives to reality people will find most plausible, will be most likely to imagine spontaneously, and will view as sufficient grounds for blame. This article is part of the theme issue 'Thinking about possibilities: mechanisms, ontogeny, functions and phylogeny'.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number20210342
JournalPhilosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
Issue number1866
StatePublished - Dec 19 2022


  • counterfactual thinking
  • mental simulation
  • moral judgement
  • motivated reasoning
  • political partisanship

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology(all)
  • Agricultural and Biological Sciences(all)


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