The Rational Imagination

The Rational Imagination

How People Create Alternatives to Reality

By Ruth M. J. Byrne

A Bradford Book





The human imagination remains one of the last uncharted terrains of the mind. This accessible and original monograph explores a central aspect of the imagination, the creation of counterfactual alternatives to reality, and claims that imaginative thoughts are guided by the same principles that underlie rational thoughts. Research has shown that rational thought is more imaginative than cognitive scientists had supposed; in The Rational Imagination, Ruth Byrne argues that imaginative thought is more rational than scientists have imagined.

People often create alternatives to reality and imagine how events might have turned out "if only" something had been different. Byrne explores the "fault lines" of reality, the aspects of reality that are more readily changed in imaginative thoughts. She finds that our tendencies to imagine alternatives to actions, controllable events, socially unacceptable actions, causal and enabling relations, and events that come last in a temporal sequence provide clues to the cognitive processes upon which the counterfactual imagination depends. The explanation of these processes, Byrne argues, rests on the idea that imaginative thought and rational thought have much in common.


Out of Print ISBN: 9780262025843 268 pp. | 6 in x 9 in 4 illus.


$25.00 X ISBN: 9780262524742 268 pp. | 6 in x 9 in 4 illus.


  • In this lucid and beautifully written book Byrne builds a sturdy bridge between the theories of counterfactual thought and inferential reasoning. The integrated treatment that she proposes is a major contribution to both fields.

    Daniel Kahneman

    Princeton University, Nobel Laureate in Economic Sciences (2002)

  • This is a wonderdful and brilliant book. Bryne draws connections to many aspects of cognition, but also to social psychology, differential psychology, evolutionary psychology, and clinical psychology. The book shows great breadth of imagination at the same time that it shows rigorous attention to the details of experimental designs.This is a terrific book—I really enjoyed reading it.

    Robert J. Sternberg

    IBM Professor of Psychology and Education, and the Director of the PACE Center, Yale University

  • 'Knowing what I now know I would still have authorized the President to go to war'—John Kerry. If you want to understand why such conditionals matter then you should read this book. It brings together an account of rationality and creativity to present a unique and powerful theory of how we think about alternatives to reality.

    Philip N. Johnson-Laird

    Stuart Professor of Psychology, Princeton University