The Over-Interpretation of Dreams

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Why people act as though their dreams can predict the future.

We all live two mental lives. When we are awake it is mostly ordered, rational, linear and bounded by rules, both behavioural and physical.

But when we are asleep it is chaotic, non-linear, without rules, often without sense.

According to some psychologists, dreams are nothing more than the by-product of a brain disconnected from its normal sensory inputs, free-wheeling its way through the night. To others, dreams denote night-time learning or problem-solving, even automatic sifting of the mind’s detritus, the skimming off of useless information to be dumped like so much mental junk.

Amongst the general public, though, there are much stronger beliefs about the power of dreams. So strong that, according to recent research, people seem to believe dreams can predict the future.

Freudians

To see how much meaning people ascribe to their dreams, Carey Morewedge and Michael Norton asked participants to compare four ways of thinking about dreams (Morewedge & Norton, 2009):

  • Freudian: dreams reveal buried truths about the self.
  • Problem-solving: dreams help us work through our problems while we sleep.
  • Learning theory: dreams are how we process and sort out the day’s events.
  • Random: dreams are vivid hallucinations that result from our brains trying to interpret random impulses.

Notice the last three theories all share the idea that, while dreaming may or may not have a psychological purpose, the actual content of our dreams is still mental junk: sometimes entertaining, sometimes frightening, often weird, but with no real meaning in and of itself. The content only has a strong meaning in the Freudian approach.

Participants from the United States, South Korea and India were all more likely to endorse the Freudian view of dreams than the other three. In the US sample it was 56% Freudian, 8% problem-solving, 18% random and 18% learning.

Plane crash

Although 56% endorsing Freud might sound high, Morewedge and Norton thought it was still an underestimate of how much store people put by their dreams. So a second and third study asked both Freudians and non-Freudians to estimate the effect of their dreams on behaviour.

Participants were asked to imagine they were taking a flight tomorrow when each of the following events happened the night before:

  • They consciously thought about the plane crashing on the route they were going to take,
  • They had a dream about the same thing,
  • Or, it actually happened the night before!

They were then asked to put these in order of most to least likely to make them cancel their flight. My money was in the same place as I’d guess yours is: on the real plane crash being the most off-putting. For the Freudians in the group, though, we’d both be wrong. Incredibly, they thought the dream would be the greatest motivator to cancel the flight, even more so than an actual, real-life crash.

Non-Freudians rated the real-world event as more influential than the dream, but only just. Giving the lie to their non-Freudian stance, though, they still thought dreams would be more influential than thoughts they had while they were awake.

So the majority of people think their dreams will influence their waking life, often more so than a similar waking thought. But the experimenters wanted to push it further: what if a dream’s message conflicted with a person’s best interests?

Dream cheats

Morewedge and Norton’s next two experiments used a common dream in which someone we like does something nasty to us. In this case it was dreaming that a friend had betrayed us by kissing our partner.

What they found was that people who remembered a dream about their friend kissing their partner tended to think it was meaningless, but when the dream cheat was someone they didn’t like, it was filled with meaning. This suggests people only imply meaning into their dreams when the implications fit their motives.

In a final study experimenters pitted people’s dreams up against their religious beliefs. Again, participants demonstrated a motivational interpretation of their dreams. They were happy to endorse the meaningfulness of their dreams, unless it contradicted their religious beliefs, in which case they deemed them meaningless.

Daydream believer

Part of the reason people sometimes place so much belief in dreams is because of the long cultural history of dream interpretation which we are regularly reminded about in books, films and on TV.

But it’s more than just that.

Morewedge and Norton argue that there is also a basic psychological process supporting people’s belief in dreams. We have random thoughts all the time, like day-dreaming about getting a raise at work. If a thought comes while awake, it can be consciously dismissed as wishful thinking. But when the same thought comes during a dream, it’s harder to dismiss.

Although logically impossible, dreams can feel like they come from outside ourselves. Along with the long cultural history of dream analysis, their apparently mysterious source may be partly why some people find dreams so influential.

Image credit: Simon Pais-Thomas

About the author


Dr Jeremy Dean is a psychologist and the author of PsyBlog. His latest book is "Making Habits, Breaking Habits: How to Make Changes That Stick". You can follow PsyBlog by email, by RSS feed, on Twitter and Google+.

Published: 12 January 2011

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