Imagined interactions are a type of social cognition and mental imagery, theoretically grounded in symbolic interactionism, in which individuals imagine conversations with significant others for a variety of purposes (Honeycutt 2003). The imagined interaction construct has provided a beneficial mechanism for studying intrapersonal and interpersonal communication . Imagined interactions are a type of daydreaming that has definitive characteristics and serves a number of functions including rehearsal, self-understanding, relational maintenance, managing conflict, catharsis, and compensation. They often concentrate on ongoing or important events in individuals’ daily lives and are associated with a variety of emotions (Klinger 1990).
Imagined interactions are mindful activities (Honeycutt & Ford 2001). Langer et al. (1978) showed how people sometimes process information by not attending carefully to information in their immediate environment. Mindlessness occurs when individuals rely on routine ways of thinking and use scripts such as saying “Hi” as a greeting ritual. Honeycutt and Cantrill (2001) have discussed how scripts are a type of automatic pilot providing guidelines for how to act when encountering new situations. 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 different from instances of self-talk and private speech. A common example of internal monologue is an individual practicing a speech who only envisions what he or she will say while ignoring feedback or audience reactions. Internal monologues are speech directed toward the self from the self while imagined interactions are directed toward someone else. Private speech occurs when an individual speaks aloud to himself or herself. Roloff and Ifert (1998) discuss how private speech may occur in isolation as well as in the presence of others. When enacted in the presence of others, private speech may not elicit a response from an interaction partner because the partner perceives the speech is not directed toward himself or herself.
Honeycutt (2003) distinguishes imagined interactions from fantasy. He clarifies the difference by stating that imagined interactions simulate communication encounters that a person expects to experience or has experienced during his or her interpersonal life. Fantasies involve highly improbable or even impossible communicative encounters. For example, imagining chatting with an idolized movie star would be quite unlikely to occur, and thus would qualify as pure fantasy. These imagined encounters would not, or at least would rarely, serve as the basis for actual communication. Research supports the notion that imagined interactions do not occur with strangers or celebrities but with real-life significant others. Honeycutt (2003) cites studies indicating that college students had most of their imagined interactions with romantic partners (33 percent), followed by friends (16 percent), family members (12 percent), authority figures (9.4 percent), co-workers (8 percent), ex-relational partners (6 percent), and prospective partners (4 percent). Imagined interactions with rivals occur sparingly.
Functional Theory Of Imagined Interactions
A functional theory of imagined interactions explains their purpose in everyday encounters. When assuming a functional approach to analyzing imagined interactions, it is assumed that there may be therapeutic benefits at some level, whether it is increased self-awareness, relief of tension, or having pleasant thoughts about the imagined interaction. Support for this assumption is available in studies reviewed by Honeycutt (2003), particularly in the use of mental imagery to alleviate depression.
There are six functions of imagined interactions. First, they maintain relationships, as intrusive thinking occurs in which the partner is thought about outside of his or her physical presence. It has been found that they occur with friends, family members, intimate partners, roommates, and co-workers (Honeycutt 2003). They also occur among geographically separated couples.
A second function of imagined interactions is rehearsing and planning messages. Individuals report how they prepare for important encounters and even think of various messages depending on their interaction partner’s responses. Except for lonely people, rehearsal is often helpful even when there are discrepancies with actual conversations. Rehearsal allows people to develop rapid response contingencies more quickly compared to no-rehearsal. It is helpful in preparing for job interviews and in stress situations such as having to tell someone bad news. The rehearsal function acknowledges the vital role communication plays in converting plans to action. Berger (1997) notes that when individuals engage in the planning process by themselves, they likely engage in internal dialogue as a means of testing out several alternatives before enactment. In essence, the individual can rehearse the plan(s) mentally prior to activation.
A third function of imagined interactions is self-understanding, as imagined interactions allow people to clarify their own thoughts and promote understanding of their own views. Imagined interactions’ role in bettering self-understanding has been revealed in research assessing their use by couples experiencing geographical separation. Geographically separated couples indicate they experience imagined interactions as a means for increasing self-understanding compared to couples that are not geographically separated (Honeycutt 2003). These results suggest that such couples have a greater need to develop better understanding prior to interaction because of the limit on interaction time due to their geographic circumstances.
The fourth function, catharsis, allows people to release emotions and vent feelings of frustration or joy. There is tension relief and anxiety reduction. This often occurs in conjunction with the fifth, compensation, function, in which individuals compensate for the lack of actual conversations. For example, a person may imagine giving his or her supervisor a “piece of their mind,” which momentarily relaxes them. Yet, they realize to do this may result in reprisal or sanctions; hence, both compensation and catharsis are used. For example, compensating for the lack of real interaction in long-distance relationships may be used to keep the relationship alive as well as rehearsing what will be said at the next telephone conversation.
The final function is conflict management. Individuals may relive old disagreements and arguments while simultaneously imagining statements for ensuing encounters. Hence, disagreements may pick up where they left off from prior interactions. The study of imagined interactions explains why there may be long-term, recurrent conflict and particular themes that characterize encounters between relational partners. Imagined interactions link a series of encounters together, as individuals replay what was previously said and anticipate what may be said in the future. Conflict is maintained by reliving old arguments and imagining future conversations so that subsequent encounters may become self-fulfilling prophecies as interaction expectancies are enacted (Honeycutt 2003). More specifically, conflict is managed for productive outcomes by having positive imagined interactions in which positive thinking overwhelms pessimism.
The conflict management function of imagined interactions explains recurring conflict in personal relationships. Honeycutt (2003) has presented three axioms and nine theorems for managing conflict, with numerous studies supporting them. Some therapists lament how counseling and intervention may not result in longitudinal benefits in getting couples to communicate constructively. Conflict may be maintained through retroand proactive imagined interactions that link a series of interactions (Honeycutt 1995). People may experience negative emotions as they “replay” such encounters. The conflict management function of imagined interactions helps explain why instruction on rational models for conflict resolution often fail, as people regress to old ways for resolving conflict (e.g., “I win, you lose”). Old interaction scripts that are nonproductive may be mindlessly retrieved from long-term memory. Thus, conflict episodes may pick up where they last left off, despite a period of physical separation. In the meantime, conflict is maintained in the mind using the retroand proactive (rehearsal) features of imagined interactions. In this regard, imagined interaction conflict management theory explains why popular “time-out” strategies advocated by educational interventionists may fail regularly.
Measurement And Findings
The study of imagined interactions presents researchers with several problems. As is true of cognitive research in general, investigators of imagined interactions must largely infer the existence of internal cognitive states from external behavior (Ericsson & Simon 1980). While physiological measures may allow researchers to document the occurrence of mental states, they tell us little about these states beyond the physiological level. The Survey of Imagined Interaction is used to measure the characteristics and functions of imagined interactions, and journal accounts and interviews have also been used to study imagined interactions.
Individuals describing their imagined interactions utilize verbal, visual, or mixed imagery. Verbal imagery concerns the content of messages. Visual imagery involves “seeing” the scene of the interaction. Those reporting a mixed mode also indicated more pleasantness than did those reporting primarily verbal modes (Honeycutt 2003).
The Survey of Imagined Interactions has proved to be a reliable measure of imagined interactions. When assessing imagined interactions in various situations, it is important for researchers to contextualize or reword the items to reflect the context of interest. For example, if someone is interested in how often imagined interactions occur in an organizational setting with a co-worker, the survey participants need to be explicitly told who is being referred to, such as a supervisor, co-worker, or subordinate.
“Talk-out-loud” procedures, in which individuals role-play what they would say to a relational partner about an important relational issue (e.g., financial management, sexual relations) that they have chosen as problematic in their relationship, have been used in imagined interaction research. Using interviews as a means of studying marital couples and their use of imagined interactions, Honeycutt (1995) found that couples recall old arguments that are experienced as retroactive imagined interactions, and these have just as much meaning to them as actual conversations. However, other couples reported that the imagined interactions serve as a mechanism for dealing with suppressed conflict that is not being discussed openly. Individuals have a better memory for imagined interactions involving conflict (Honeycutt 2003).
Research suggests lonely individuals have imagined interactions that are discrepant from real conversations (Edwards et al. 1988). Imagined interactions may perpetuate their lonely state because of limited access to conversational scripts. Discrepancy is negatively correlated with communication competence (Honeycutt et al. 1992 –1993).
Physiological responses while experiencing imagined interactions related to aggressive driving are being studied through the analysis of blood pressure, heart rate per minute, inter-beat interval, and somatic activity. Persons report on their imagined interactions before engaging in a motivated driving task on driving simulators that state troopers use to train themselves for a variety of traffic conditions. Physiological responses are measured while persons imagine arguments with partners and while they actually argue with them. Results reveal some relationships between heart rate variability and imagined interaction conflict management.
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