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Discrediting the imaginary hypocrite: Thinking counterfactually about political criticism increases judgments of hypocrisy.
This research demonstrates how counterfactual thinking can lead people to judge others’ criticisms of their preferred political leaders as hypocritical. When motivated to dismiss others’ criticisms, individuals don’t require actual hypocritical behavior to perceive hypocrisy. It is enough that they can imagine a situation in which the critic would have criticized hypocritically. These counterfactual judgments of hypocrisy predict individuals’ perceptions of the criticism as less legitimate, the commentator as less credible and trustworthy, and the favored politician as less deserving of criticism. Results emerged independently in three studies (two pre-registered; total N = 1,608), revealing how motivated reasoning influences not only individuals’ judgments of what others have done, but also their judgments of what others would do if given the opportunity. We discuss implications for how counterfactual thinking can amplify conflict in partisan politics.