The researchers call these scenarios “representational thinking.” But contrarian thinking is not limited to our personal or professional lives. In a recent study, Neil Roseprofessor of marketing at Kellogg, and his colleagues investigate how it plays out in the political arena: What we think the world would be like if politicians had he acted differently?
As the American left and right become increasingly polarized over how to interpret events, the group wondered whether similar partisanship would color opposing thinking.
They suspected it might. After all, says Roese, facts are somewhat limited by observation, but counterfactuals are “more open to the imagination.”
The researchers found that Democrats and Republicans were more likely to agree that a confrontational scenario was plausible if it aligned with their political views. Partisan differences also emerged when asked to write their own scenarios—for example, what would have happened if Republicans had not blocked Merrick Garland’s nomination to the Supreme Court or if the US had not rejoined the Paris accord on climate.
“Partisans differ not only in how they interpret events, but also in how they construct scenarios of what might have happened,” says Roese.
If only …
Counterintuitive thinking can go in one of two directions. The first is “upside down”: how the outcome could have been better if something had happened differently. For example, if a student gets a C on a test at school, they may think that if they had started studying earlier, they would have gotten a higher score.
The second is “downward”: how things could have been worse. In this case, the student may think that if they hadn’t cram the night before, they would have failed the test.
In general, research has shown that people’s contrarian thinking tends to skew upward. They are more likely to think about how they could have achieved more of their goals and dreams if they had made different choices or had no obstacles. A key reason behind this pattern is that Contrarian thinking is usually associated with goal pursuit. Controversial thoughts, when focused on one’s own actions, aim to understand how best to avoid failure and move to better states of being. The more optimistic a person is, the more focused he is actions they could have taken to achieve a better outcomeassociated with the expectation of better results down the road.
To find out whether this general tendency toward upward counterfactual thinking holds as people ponder political issues, Roese and colleagues, Kai Epstude
at the University of Groningen and Daniel Efron at the London Business School, surveyed both Democrats and Republicans through the online survey platform Prolific. Each person was presented with descriptions of six political issues of recent interest, such as taxes or immigration.
For each issue, participants read an opposing scenario — sometimes up, sometimes down — and rated the plausibility of each scenario on a scale of 1 to 5. Upward scenarios favored all Democratic views, while downward scenarios favored Republican views.
For example, on the topic of the COVID-19 pandemic, the upward trend against the Democratic tilt was “If the Trump administration had worked directly with more doctors and scientists, then the current COVID-19 situation would be much better.” On the other hand, the opposite trend toward Republicans was “If the Trump administration hadn’t launched Operation Warp Speed, then the COVID situation would have been much worse.”
The team then repeated the experiment with another set of participants, but reversed the political alignment of each scenario. For example, this time the Republican opposite was bullish: “If Biden wasn’t president, then the current COVID situation would be much better.” And the opposite of the Democratic slant was down: “If Biden wasn’t president, then the current COVID situation would be much worse.”
Participants tended to rate scenarios that aligned with their views as more plausible, regardless of whether they were upside or downside. For example, in the first half of the study, Democrats rated left-leaning scenarios as more plausible than right-leaning scenarios. In the second half of the study, they rated the right-tilt scenarios lower than the left-tilt-down scenarios.
While this may not be particularly surprising in today’s hyperpartisan atmosphere, the results contradict the long-standing finding in previous research that dissent tends to be on the rise. “In the political realm, that general pattern goes out the window,” says Roese. Research shows that the realm of the hypothetical is fair game for partisan politics.
The researchers saw similar results when they asked participants to write their own counterexamples, as opposed to evaluating counterexamples provided to them. That is, participants responded to prompts such as “If Biden had not taken a tougher tone on Russia, then…” or “If Republicans had been able to pass the tax cuts earlier than 2017, then…” Participants could use their own words, and their own imagination, to describe how the situation could have been better or worse.
Again, participants did not automatically gravitate toward bottom-up thinking. The direction of their written scripts tended to align with their political views.
Next, the team explored a more nuanced question. They wanted to examine reactions to potentially catastrophic scenarios that people might think were imminent, such as war with North Korea or a massive cyber attack on the United States.
In their personal lives, people tend to place more blame when a bad outcome is narrowly avoidable. For example, imagine your spouse delays you with a question as you walk out the door at the airport and you almost miss your flight. If you arrive at the gate with only 30 seconds to spare, you’d probably blame your spouse more than if you arrived a full ten minutes before the doors closed.
The researchers wanted to explore two related questions: Did the perceived “closeness” of a hypothetical disaster affect how much people blamed the political leader responsible? And was the amount of responsibility affected by partisanship?
They introduced a new set of participants with various political scenarios. For example, on the topic of cybersecurity, they explained that the military had increased defenses against cyberattacks under President Biden, but that some critics argued that those efforts were insufficient and that the U.S. could have been weakened by an attack on millions of people’s electricity and bank accounts.
The researchers then asked people to rate how close they thought the disaster came and how much they blamed the president for almost letting it happen.
The team found that the closer people thought a disaster was about to happen, the more they blamed the president. This was true regardless of whether the president was from their favored political party. However, partisanship also affected the degree of blame participants placed on the president, with participants tending to blame leaders of a non-preferred political party more.
This research shows that counterarguments and accusation go hand in hand, Roese says, but also that partisanship plays an important role in how people use counterarguments to reinforce their responsibility for political enemies.
Who is more biased?
Some observers have claimed that those on the left are more biased than those on the right. others claim the opposite. An interesting question, then, is whether Democrats or Republicans are more likely to use counterarguments to support their partisan views.
In all studies, the researchers made sure to sample an equal number of participants from each side of the partisan spectrum to try to answer this question. Interestingly, no evidence of a unique left or right bias was found. Overall, Roese explains, Democrats and Republicans were similar in using contrarian thinking to support their preferred political viewpoint.
Rose says that while the worst part of the polarized political atmosphere in the US is that “we can’t always agree on the basic facts,” this survey suggests that the divide goes further. “We can’t even agree on trade-offs,” he says.