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The Effects of Counterfactual Attacks and Defences in Politics

Patrizia Catellani, Mauro Bertolotti



When attacking others or defending themselves, politicians use communication as a form of impression management, often in subtle and implicit ways. Recourse to counterfactuals may be one of such ways, but the effects of counterfactual communication are so far relatively unexplored. In a series of experimental studies, we investigated the effects of attacking and defending politicians’ past actions by considering how things could have been different. Participants were asked to read short persuasive messages with different style (factual vs. counterfactual), communicative intention (attack vs. defence), and communicative context (public vs. private). Results showed that counterfactual attacks induce more negative impressions of the attacked politician than factual attacks and prevent the source of the attack from being perceived as aggressive or biased. In turn, counterfactual defences induce more positive impressions of the defending politician than factual defences. They reduce responsibility attributed to the defending politician and perceived negativity of the event outcome, thus providing a convincing justification for past behaviour. Discussion will focus on the effectiveness of counterfactuals as a subtle communication strategy.

Keywords: counterfactual attacks, factual defences, perceived negativity, communication strategy, political rhetoric, Italian politics


Bibliography: Catellani, Patrizia/Bertolotti, Mauro: The Effects of Counterfactual Attacks and Defences in Politics, PCS, 1-2-2015, pp. 39-50.


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