Dreams Decoded

Dreams captivate us for a reason. Their meaning may elude us, but whether we're running through a nightmare, floating off in the middle of class, or lost in a late-night reverie, dreams always seem to have something to say.

The Politics of Dreaming

Political liberals recall more dreams, and more bizarre ones, than conservatives

Recent research has found an interesting relationship between dreaming and a person’s political orientation. Those who identify as politically liberal tend to recall their dreams more frequently than those who identify as conservative. Additionally, conservatives tend to report more mundane dream content, whereas liberals have more bizarre dreams. Better dream recall is associated with higher openness to experience, and liberals tend to be higher in openness to experience than conservatives. The difference in dream recall may be due to differences in openness between liberals and conservatives. These findings seem to suggest that liberals may differ from conservatives not only in their social values, but may be more imaginative than conservatives.

Liberals report more bizarre dream content than conservatives
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In a large scale demographic survey of Americans, those who identified as liberals recalled more dreams (including nightmares) than conservatives (Bulkeley, 2012). (Those who identified as libertarian or as moderates were excluded from the analysis.) Liberals were also more likely to talk about their dreams and reported higher rates of lucid dreaming. There was very substantial overlap between liberals and conservatives in their dream recall patterns though, indicating that this was not a large difference.   

These findings are in line with an earlier study by the same author (Bulkeley, 2006)  that also found that conservatives slept more soundly whilst liberals had more troubled sleep. Participants in this study were also asked to provide details of their most recent dream. An interesting finding was that conservatives tended to have more mundane dreams, containing only events that could occur in real life, whereas liberals were more likely to report bizarre dream content, such as flying or talking with someone who has died in real life. Liberals generally reported a greater variety of dream themes. Although there is considerable overlap, liberals seem to have a richer scope of dream experiences that is more likely to include fantastic elements and be less grounded in mundane reality.

The author also noted differences in the content of women’s sexual dreams depending on political orientation. Liberal women’s sexual dream reports were more elaborate and detailed than those of their conservative counterparts. Liberal women reported higher rates of sexual dreams (92 percent vs. 71 percent), even though the conservatives’ rates were fairly high (suggesting they were not on the whole too embarrassed to admit sexual dreams). Liberal females also were more likely to report sexual interactions with other women (24 percent vs. 4 percent). Liberal women may be more open to sexuality in their dreams generally and to homosexuality in particular than conservative women.

Bulkeley interpreted these findings in line with the “continuity hypothesis” of dreaming. This hypothesis proposes that people tend to dream about whatever is most important and emotionally salient in their lives. This is in contrast to Freudian and Jungian theories of dreaming which emphasise the disguised, symbolic nature of dream content.

A study on dream recall and big five personality traits found that higher openness to experience was associated with more dream recall (Watson, 2003). Openness to experience is a personality trait associated with the breadth and richness of a person’s inner life as well as their preference for variety and novelty versus sameness. This study had the advantage of using a daily diary method of assessing dream recall rather than asking a general question about dream recall as in the studies by Bulkeley. Political liberalism is moderately associated with openness to experience, so the greater dream recall of liberals may be due to their greater openness to experience. This would also fit in with the continuity hypothesis. People high on openness to experience tend to have a greater variety of inner experiences in waking life than more closed individuals, and their dreams therefore follow a similar pattern.

Openness is usually considered in terms of a number of component facets, including openness to ideas, values, feelings, aesthetics, actions, and fantasy. The facet most relevant to political orientation, and on which liberals and conservatives differ most strongly, is openness to values, which explicitly relates to a person’s attitudes to authority and tradition. Conservatism is associated with a preference for the familiar, and conservatives tend to value conformity and traditionalism. Liberalism is associated with greater comfort with change and innovation, and liberals are more likely to question authority and the value of tradition.

The findings about the differences in dream content suggest that not only are liberals more open to values but they are more open to fantasy as well. Although measures of the fantasy facet have no apparent ideological content, studies have found that other openness facets including fantasy, are positively associated with liberalism (McCrae & Sutin, 2009). This suggests that liberals not only differ from conservatives in their social attitudes but they tend to have richer inner experiences generally. This might make it easier for them to envision a new and better kind of society they would like to strive for.  

Whether or not being high in fantasy-related tendencies is considered a good or a bad thing depends on subjective preferences. People high in openness to experience tend to regard it as socially desirable, whereas more closed individuals demean it (McCrae & Sutin, 2009). Conservatives may see themselves as realistic, down-to-earth and grounded in reality, whereas liberals might view them as dull, unimaginative, and inflexible. Liberals might see themselves as visionary and forward thinking, whereas conservatives might see them as having their “heads in their clouds” and being out of touch with reality. In practice openness to fantasy may be a two-edged sword. Without imagination and fantasy there can be no creativity and hence no progress. On the other hand, fantasy that is ungrounded in practical considerations can shade into madness.

Finally, it may be worth reiterating that not only is there substantial overlap between liberals and conservatives in dream recall, but in personality as well. When considering whether to vote for a political candidate, bear in mind that some conservative policies could well be the product of a bizarre fantasy and that some liberals ones could be grounded in reality, and vice versa.

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© Scott McGreal. Please do not reproduce without permission. Brief excerpts may be quoted as long as a link to the original article is provided. 

References 

Bulkeley, K. (2006). Sleep and dream patterns of political liberals and conservatives. Dreaming, 16(3), 223-235.

Bulkeley, K. (2012). Dream Recall and Political Ideology: Results of a Demographic Survey. Dreaming, 22(1), 1-9. doi: 10.1037/a0026170

McCrae, Robert & Sutin, Angelina R. (2009). "Chapter 17. Openness to Experience". In Mark R. Leary, & Rick H. Hoyle. Handbook of Individual Differences in Social Behavior. New York/London: The Guildford Press. pp. 257–273. ISBN 978-1-59385-647-2.

Watson, D. (2003). To dream, perchance to remember: individual differences in dream recall. Personality and Individual Differences, 34, 1271–1286. 

Dreams Decoded