American Political Science Review

Research Article

Politics in the Mind's Eye: Imagination as a Link between Social and Political Cognition


a1 Aarhus University


How do modern individuals form a sense of the vast societies in which they live? Social cognition has evolved to make sense of small, intimate social groups, but in complex mass societies, comparable vivid social cues are scarcer. Extant research on political attitudes and behavior has emphasized media and interpersonal networks as key sources of cues. Extending a classical argument, we provide evidence for the importance of an alternative and internal source: imagination. With a focus on social welfare, we collected survey data from two very different democracies, the United States and Denmark, and conducted several studies using explicit, implicit, and behavioral measures. By analyzing the effects of individual differences in imagination, we demonstrate that political cognition relies on vivid, mental simulations that engage evolved social and emotional decision-making mechanisms. It is in the mind's eye that vividness and engagement are added to people's sense of mass politics.


  The authors would like to acknowledge the helpful guidance and advice received from Pascal Boyer, Jamie Druckman, Stanley Feldman, Ann Giessing, Pete Hatemi, John Hibbing, Mathew Hibbing, Bryan Jones, Robert Klemmensen, Jeff Mondak, Dan Myers, Jesper Nielsen, Asbjørn Sonne Nørgaard, Rune Slothuus, and Claes de Vreese, as well as participants in the Interacting Minds Seminars at Aarhus University and at the Center for Evolutionary Psychology at the University of California–Santa Barbara, five anonymous reviewers, and APSR co-editors Jennifer Hochschild and Valerie J. Martinez-Ebers. The data collection for this article was financed by two research grants from the Danish Research Council to Michael Bang Petersen and Lene Aarøe, respectively. The authors have contributed equally to all parts of the research.