- James M. HoneycuttJames M. HoneycuttDepartment of Communication Studies, Louisiana State University
- and Robert M. McCannRobert M. McCannSchool of Management, University of California, Los Angeles
Imagined interactions (IIs) are a process of social cognition and mental imagery in which individuals imagine and therefore indirectly experience themselves in anticipated and/or past communicative encounters with others. They have been studied in intergroup communication in terms of communication apprehension (CA), group conflict, teasing and bullying, cross-cultural differences, political partisanship, and sexual orientation. They have their theoretical foundation in the work of classic symbolic interactionists and phenomenologists, as well as cognitive script theory. IIs possess many of the same attributes as real conversations, in that they may be fragmentary, extended, rambling, repetitive, or coherent. They are a means of problem solving by allowing an individual to think through a problem.
There are 14 features of IIs, comprised of eight attributes (frequency, proactivity, retroactivity, valence, discrepancy, self-dominance, variety, and specificity) and six functions (compensation, rehearsal, understanding, conflict linkage, relational maintenance, and catharsis). Brief descriptions of the functions follow: They compensate for lack of real interaction, they maintain conflict as well as resolving it, they are used to rehearse messages for future interaction, they aid people in self-understanding through clarifying attitudes and beliefs, they provide emotional catharsis by relieving tension, and they help maintain relationships through intrusive thinking about a relational partner outside of their physical presence.
In terms of the attributes, frequency represents how often people experience them. Proactivity and retroactivity are concerned with the timing of the II in relation to actual conversations. Proactive IIs occur before an anticipated encounter, while retroactive IIs occur afterward. Retroactivity is very common in films and movies in which characters have flashbacks. Proactive and retroactive IIs can occur simultaneously, as individuals replay prior conversations in their minds while preparing for ensuing interactions. Discrepancy occurs when what was imagined is different from what happens in actual conversations. Since IIs can be used for message planning, most of the imaginary talk comes from the self, with less emphasis being placed on listening to what the interaction partner says. This reflects the self-dominance attribute. The variety characteristic of IIs reflects individual differences in the number of topics that are discussed in the IIs and whom they involve. IIs tend to occur with significant others such as relational partners, family, and friends. They do not occur with people whom we rarely see. Valence reflects how positive or negative the emotions are while having an II. Finally, IIs vary in their specificity, or how vague the imagined lines of dialogue are, as well as the setting where the imaginary encounter occurs.