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

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  08 April 2013

Aarhus University
Aarhus University
Michael Bang Petersen is Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science and Government, Aarhus University, Bartholins Alle 7, 8000 Aarhus C, Denmark (
Lene Aarøe is Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science and Government, Aarhus University, Bartholins Alle 7, 8000 Aarhus C, Denmark (


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.

Research Article
Copyright © American Political Science Association 2013 

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