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It could have been true: How counterfactual thoughts reduce condemnation of falsehoods and increase political polarization


Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin


Organisational Behaviour

Authors / Editors

Effron D A


Publication Year



This research demonstrates how counterfactual thoughts can lead people to excuse others for telling falsehoods. When a falsehood aligned with participants’ political preferences, reflecting on how it could have been true led them to judge it as less unethical to tell, which in turn led them to judge a politician who told it as having a more moral character and deserving less punishment. When a falsehood did not align with political preferences, this effect was significantly smaller and less reliable, in part because people doubted the plausibility of the relevant counterfactual thoughts. These results emerged independently in three studies (two pre-registered; total N = 2,783) and in meta- and Bayesian analyses, regardless of whether participants considered the same counterfactuals or generated their own. The results reveal how counterfactual thoughts can amplify partisan differences in judgments of alleged dishonesty. I discuss implications for theories of counterfactual thinking and motivated moral reasoning.


Counterfactual thinking; Ethics; Morality; Social judgement; Dishonesty; Lies; Political psychology; Trump; Clinton

Available on ECCH


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