Philosophy:Imagined interaction

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Imagined interactions (IIs) are a type of social cognition and mental imagery grounded in symbolic interactionism in which individuals imagine conversations with significant others for a variety of purposes (Honeycutt, 2003; 2015). The research program was founded and created by James M. Honeycutt in 1987, who was designated an LSU Distinguished Professor in 2012. He provided a keynote address at the American Association for the Study of Mental Imagery at Yale University in 1987 discussing the functions of imagined interactions and mental imagery. In 2006, Honeycutt's book, "Imagined Interactions: Daydreaming about Communication" (2003), was awarded Distinguished Book of the Year by the National Communication Association for developing the original formulations and the II construct which has provided a beneficial mechanism for operationalizing the study of intrapersonal communication, social cognition, daydreaming, and mental imagery. Furthermore, imagined interactions can be used in sports imagery as athletes "imagine" positive outcomes of their executions on specific plays or formations (Keaton, Gearhart, & Honeycutt, 2014).

Theoretical Foundation of Imagined Interactions

In the early research, IIs were suggested as a means to operationalize the study of daydreaming as it works to shape communication interpersonally, emotions, and personality. They have been examined cross-culturally (McCann, Honeycutt, & Keaton, 2010).

Scripts are activated mindlessly and created through imagined interactions, as people envision contingency plans for actions. In contrast to mindless processing, engaging in imagined interaction requires conscious cognitive processing. Imagined interactions are a type of daydreaming that have definitive attributes and serve a number of functions including rehearsal, self-understanding, relational maintenance, managing conflict, catharsis, and compensation. Retroactive imagined interactions often occur in television shows in terms of “flashbacks” as characters relive prior conversations in their mind.

Honeycutt et al. (1989) discuss how IIs have their theoretical foundation in the work of symbolic interactionists and phenemonologists, including Mead (1934), Dewey (1922) and Schutz (1962). As individuals engage in imagined interactions, cognitive scripts are activated as people imagine how they might react in an upcoming conversation. Imagined interactions help people prepare for encounters. They also help people to relive previous conversations and foster good or bad memories.

Attributes of Imagined Interactions

Within imagined interaction theory, Honeycutt (2003) defines eight attributes or characteristics of IIs that can be measured as personality traits or contextually in various situations or with specific individuals. For example, while a person may have a lot of IIs in their daily life, they may have IIs while doing their job or a particular task. Having IIs while playing tennis would interfere with serving and returning the ball.

Specifically, the eight attributes include the following:

1. Frequency—How often a person has IIs ranging from rarely to quite frequently. For example, lonely people have fewer IIs because they have fewer interaction scenes to access compared to nonlonely people (Honeycutt, 2003).

2. Proactivity—Proactivity refers to those IIs which are engaged in prior to actual interaction, and research has shown that such IIs tend to occur prior to actual interactions. For example, a worker may desire a raise, so she decides to approach her boss concerning the matter. Using an II proactively, she may visualize herself going into her boss’s office and may even devise a plan for what she will say. This is an example of a proactive II.

3. Retroactivity— Retroactivity refers to reviewing an interaction after it has taken place. Proactive and retroactive IIs can simultaneously occur so that conversations are linked together and themes of interpersonal relationships emerge (Honeycutt, 2014). For example, in order to characterize a relationship as competitive or hostile with another person, the person recalls more conversations in which disagreements were communicated as opposed to pleasant, cooperative transactions (Honeycutt, 2010).

4. Variety—Variety refers to the diversity of topics and partners within IIs. IIs which involve various topics are related to the imaginer’s internal locus of control which lends credence to the idea that chronically lonely individuals lack variety in their IIs. However, a person may have IIs with a variety of partners on few topics (e.g., Football plays and strategies are more likely to be the focus of discussion among a team's coaches while in practice in order not be distracted).

5. Discrepancy— Discrepancy refers to the incongruity between IIs and the actual interaction they address; in other words, how similar or different an II is from the relevant interaction. Studies suggest that individuals who are chronically lonely have highly discrepant IIs due to their limited prior interactions upon which to base them. Researchers suspect the high discrepancy of IIs that occurs prior to a new interaction perpetuates and reinforces the state of loneliness (Honeycutt, 2003).

6. Self-Dominance—This attribute addresses who is more prominent in the II: self, both, or other. Research shows that self dominance is in part determined by the scenario of the II. For instance, in IIs involving matters of conflict, the person engaging in the II tends to be more dominant than their II partner. Self dominance is also influenced by culture and tends to characterize collectivistic cultures including Japan compared to individualistic cultures such as America.

7. Valence—Valence reflects how positive or negative emotions are experienced while imagining the conversation. High valence reflects positive emotional affect while low valence reflects negative emotional affect. Honeycutt (2003) reviews research indicating that females report having more pleasant IIs. Level of pleasantness and valence is inversely related to self dominance.

8. Specificity—The final attribute is specificity reflecting the degree of verbal and visual imagery used in the II. This attribute reflects the level of detail and distinction of images contained within IIs. Honeycutt (1998–99) found that those individuals reporting a secure attachment style experience high levels of detailed visual and verbal imagery, suggesting high levels of specificity.

Functions of Imagined Interactions

Imagined interactions function in the following ways: (1) they keep a relationship alive; (2) they can maintain or resolve conflict; (3) they are used to rehearse messages for future interaction; (4) they aid people in self-understanding through clarifying thoughts and feelings; (5) they provide emotional catharsis by relieving tension; and (6) they compensate for lack of real interaction (Honeycutt, 2003; 2008).

1. Relational Maintenance: People often imagine talking with others that are important in their lives. Additionally, increased uses of proactive and retroactive IIs aided the ability of imagined interactions to predict relational quality. Additionally, relational satisfaction was simultaneously predicted by extraversion and being a judger based on the Myers-Brigg personality inventory in which judging reflect placing a premium on organized environments, competence, performance and independence.

2. Conflict Linkage: For some people, they are obsessed with grudges while others think about how to improve areas of disagreement. Conflict linkage is also referred to as conflict management. However, as noted in some of the theorems of imagined interaction conflict-linkage theory which are highlighted below (e.g., theorem four explains rage). Honeycutt (2004; 2011) explains how conflict linkage is associated with rumination in which people dwell on conflicts and obsessively think about them which is related to depression. The second function of conflict linkage has received a great deal of research attention as it explains how individuals often remember arguments that are many years old and it is difficult for them to "let go." As a result, they harbor old grudges. A series of three axioms (e.g., "The communication is the relationship") and nine theorems are discussed explaining how daily conflict is managed or destructively dealt with (see Honeycutt, 2003-2004 for a review). The table below contains an outline of the axioms behind managing conflict in personal relationships and resulting theorems have been empirically tested in social scientific studies.

3. Rehearsal: People plan their messages and what they are going to say as well as anticipating what others will say to them and how the self will respond. Rehearsal often helps people in quickly developing contingencies when plans do not go as expected.

4. Self-Understanding: People have IIs in order to understand their beliefs about values, attitudes, or the opinions they have. IIs allow people to clarify their own thoughts and promote understanding of their own views.

5. Catharsis: People use IIs to relieve tension and anxiety which further reduces uncertainty. IIs provide a mechanism to internally get “things off of one’s chest” and release emotions.

6. Compensation: IIs are used to substitute for real conversations. If you do not have access to another person, you compensate for the lack communication by imagining conversations with the persons. The compensation function is rampant during electrical outages or when cell phone towers are blown down during tornadoes, hurricanes, or other environmental diasasters (Honeycutt and Mapp 2011).

Association with Big Five Personality Traits

Honeycutt, Pence, and Gearhart (2013) examined the associations between II attributes and the Big Five personality traits. In terms of personality, IIs have trait characteristics to the extent they are enduring and stable across similar conditions. Conversely, they can also be measured in terms of state attributes in which their usage would be higher or lower depending on the particular context. The Big Five Personality Traits include neuroticism, extraversion, openness, agreeableness, and conscientiousness. Honeycutt and his associates found that the frequency and proactivity attributes of imagined interactions are associated with lack of neuroticism and openness to new ideas. Neuroticism increases egocentrism, depression, and anxiety (Hamilton, Buck, Chory, Beatty, & Patrylak, 2009)). Highly anxious people have fewer IIs available to them to “predict” their perceived (or believed) unstable environment. They also found the occurrence of pleasant, non-discrepant IIs in which the self talks more to be moderately associated with the personality dimensions of extraversion and conscientiousness. Extraverts interact with more individuals than do introverts, so extraverts would therefore imagine themselves having these interactions more often than those who are not extraverted. Likewise, they discovered that extraverts have more pleasant IIs, which may be explained through another relationship between extraversion and narcissism. Extraverts think highly of themselves, and most likely portray themselves in a pleasant manner in their imagined interactions.

Correspondence between II Attributes and Functions

Although II theory has been a productive concept for research on communication and social cognition, there is an underlying and yet untested assumption within II theory that the eight attributes are related to all six functions and that II functions can be compared and contrasted in terms of II attributes. Bodie, Honeycutt, and Vickery (2013) conducted two studies exploring the multidimensional nature of functions and attributes. Their first study revealed both corroborative and contradictory evidence for II theory. In line with the internal structure of II theory, it was found that conflict linkage and catharsis IIs are more negatively valenced than those used for compensation and relational maintenance. Rehearsal IIs are more likely to be discrepant than all functions except relational maintenance and are the most proactive. When compared to all other functions, compensatory IIs contain references to more people and were more frequent. It also appears that compensatory and relational maintenance functions are similar insofar as each is equally directed toward others and highly specific, providing support for the role of each in close interpersonal relationships (Honeycutt 2003). Relational maintenance and conflict IIs were used just as frequently as those for catharsis, and relational maintenance IIs were directed toward others in an equivalent manner as those used for conflict.

Axioms and Theorems of II Conflict-Linkage Theory

  1. Interpersonal relationships exist through intrapersonal communication as imagined interactions involving the relational partner outside of actual interaction.
  2. An interpersonal relationship is maintained and developed through thinking and dwelling on a relational partner.
  3. A major theme of interpersonal relationships is conflict management (e.g., cooperation-competition). Managing conflict begins at the intrapersonal level of communication in terms of IIs.

Theorems of Conflict

  1. Recurring conflict is maintained through retro- and proactive IIs.
  2. The current mood of individuals is associated with whether or not their IIs are positive or negative. The better a person's mood, the more positive their IIs will be as well as the inverse.
  3. When an individual attempts to purposely create positive IIs (e.g., as therapy for a poor marriage), negative intrusive IIs will frequently occur, in many cases with effects that undermine the therapy or positive intent.
  4. Suppressed rage is a result of the lack of opportunity or inability to articulate arguments with the target of conflict.
  5. Thinking about conflict may be prompted by exposure to contextual cues including music, substance abuse, and media (TV shows and movies).
  6. Recurring conflict is reflected in physiological arousal, including physical manifestations of anxiety, such as "fight or flight" response of the sympathetic nervous system.
  7. In order to enhance constructive conflict, individuals need to imagine positive interactions and outcomes.
  8. Conflict-linkage has the potential of distorting reality because conflict is kept alive in a person's mind and facilitates anticipating a conversation that most likely will be discrepant from reality since the actual interaction will not occur as planned.
  9. People use IIs as a mechanism for escape from societal norms. For example, a person may be expected to talk a certain way with their boss in real life, but in their IIs, the persons can be considerably more bold or liberated.

Imagined Interactions and Political Partisanship

Madison, Rold, and Honeycutt (2014) examined partisan voting in light of imagined interactions. The researchers asked how respondents who claim to vote for candidates from certain political parties differ from those who do not in terms of the functions of their IIs. They collected data on voting intentions as well as the functions of the IIs of the survey respondents. Both Republicans and Democrats tend to have fewer self-understanding and rehearsal IIs than those who indicated preference for independent candidates, which suggests that voting along party lines may be a heuristic, or “mindless” behavior. This particular study provided the first pathway between IIs into political psychology.

Second-Generational Influence as Evidenced in Theses/Dissertations Emanating from Imagined Interaction Theory

Area of Study:



Political Communication: Imagined interactions as a link to political talk; Megan Lambertz; University of Nevada; Las Vegas; 2011;

Health Communication: THE EFFECT OF IMAGINED INTERACTIONS ON SECRET REVELATION AND HEALTH, Adam Richards; University of Montana; 2009;


Cognitive Psychology: PLANNING FOR COMMUNICATION THROUGH REHEARSAL IMAGINED INTERACTIONS: Martijn Van Kelegom, University of Tennessee, 2014;

Music Psychology: Interpersonal Communication: THE LINK BETWEEN POPULAR LOVE SONGS AND IMAGINED INTERACTIONS OF ROMANTIC RELATIONSHIPS: A MIXED METHOD STUDY; Amanda Lewis, The University of the West Indies, 2015

Educational Psychology: THE INFLUENCE OF IMAGINED INTERACTIONS ON VERBAL FLUENCY, Charles Choi, Louisiana State University; 2002;





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