Counterfactual thinking as a mechanism in narrative persuasion

Nurit Tal-Or, David S. Boninger, Amir Poran, Faith Gleicher

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Two experiments examined the impact of counterfactual thinking on persuasion. Participants in both experiments were exposed to short video clips in which an actor described a car accident that resulted in serious injury. In the narrative description, the salience of a counterfactual was manipulated by either explicitly including the counterfactual in the narrative or by not including it. An examination of attitudes related to traffic safety supported the hypothesis that the inclusion of a counterfactual in narrative enhances the persuasive impact of the narrative. The first study (N = 50) demonstrated this effect in the short-term, and the second study (N = 61) replicated the short-term effects while also demonstrating the temporal persistence of the initial changes in attitudes. Both studies highlighted potential limiting conditions of these effects. The first study showed that the impact of counterfactuals on persuasion is most potent when the self, rather than another person, is the focus of blame in the counterfactual. The second study revealed that attitude changes persist over time when the counterfactuals are self-generated, but not when they are spoon-fed to the participant. Results are discussed in the context of understanding the characteristics of counterfactual thoughts that enable them to enhance the persuasive impact of narrative.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)301-328
Number of pages28
JournalHuman Communication Research
Issue number3
StatePublished - Jul 2004

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Communication
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Anthropology
  • Linguistics and Language


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