Counterfactual communication in politics: Features and effects on voters.

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3 Citazioni (Scopus)


During debates and interviews, political leaders often have to defend themselves from adversaries attacking them and journalists questioning their previous performance. To fight against these threats to their image, politicians can recur to various defensive strategies, for example drawing attention away from their responsibilities or shedding a more positive light upon their work. Defensive strategies may also vary according to their being direct or indirect. Counterfactual defences may be included among indirect defensive strategies: Sometimes, politicians may defend themselves by comparing past actual events with other hypothetical events (e.g., by saying: “Things would have gone better, if the opposition had not continuously held back our proposals). In a series of studies, we first identified a typology of (explicit and implicit) counterfactuals most frequently evoked by attacked politicians in televised programs. We then examined their effects on receivers, manipulating the text of a fictitious interview to a politician. In a first study, we analyzed Silvio Berlusconi’s and Romano Prodi’s utterances during pre-electoral televised programs to identify counterfactuals embedded in them. Results of loglinear analysis showed that both politicians defended themselves by using two main counterfactual patterns: a) other-focused, controllable counterfactuals, that imply stressing the responsibility of other people and blaming them for negative outcomes; b) self-focused, uncontrollable counterfactuals, that imply a reduction of the politician’s role in events with negative outcomes. But to what extent are such defensive messages really effective? In the following studies, we analyzed the effects of some types of defensive counterfactuals on judgments expressed by voters and their perception of political candidates. Participants were presented with different versions of a fictitious political interview, in which the leader of an exit government answered a “threatening” question by evoking different types of counterfactuals. For example, we compared the effects of factual versus counterfactual defences, finding the latter to be more effective in triggering a positive evaluation of the politician. We also analyzed the effect of the counterfactual direction of the messages, showing that comparing reality with worse alternatives may also be an effective defensive strategy. In sum, results from our studies indicate that recourse to counterfactual communication may be an effective defensive strategy in political debates. Discussion will focus on the opportunity of further investigating the relationship between politicians’ communication strategies and the development of citizens’ judgments regarding politics and politicians.
Lingua originaleEnglish
Titolo della pubblicazione ospiteMultimodal communication in political speech. Shaping minds and social actions.
Numero di pagine11
Stato di pubblicazionePubblicato - 2013


  • counterfactual communication
  • political speech


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