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Motivated counterfactual thinking and moral inconsistency: how we use our imaginations to selectively condemn and condone


Current Directions in Psychological Science


Organisational Behaviour

Authors / Editors

Effron D A;Epstude K;Roese N J


Publication Year



People selectively enforce their moral principles, excusing wrongdoing when it suits them. We identify an underappreciated source of this moral inconsistency: the ability to imagine counterfactuals, or alternatives to reality. Counterfactual thinking offers three sources of flexibility that people exploit to justify preferred moral conclusions: People can (a) generate counterfactuals with different content (e.g., consider how things could have been better or worse), (b) think about this content using different comparison processes (i.e., focus on how it is similar to or different than reality), and (c) give the result of these processes different weights (i.e., allow counterfactuals more or less influence on moral judgments). These sources of flexibility help people license unethical behavior and can fuel political conflict. Motivated reasoning may be less constrained by facts than previously assumed; people’s capacity to condemn and condone whom they wish may be limited only by their imaginations.


Morality; Ethics; Counterfactual thinking; Mental simulation; Imagination; Political psychology; Motivated reasoning

Available on ECCH


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