- Dreams can have many causes, and there is no one theory in psychology to explain their meaning.
- New personality research suggests that dark tetrad traits show up in dreams with evil or grandiose content.
- These findings can provide greater self-understanding and a way to protect yourself from dark tetrad people.
Dreams can be about virtually anything. One night, you may imagine yourself in an embarrassing situation, such as coming unprepared to an important meeting. Other nights can have far more pleasant unfolding scenarios, such as being reunited with a long-lost friend. Some make no sense at all.
Theories about dreaming are usually associated with Freudian psychodynamic theory, given that he believed dreams to provide the “royal road to the unconscious.” Other theories take the more mundane view that, while dreaming, you’re simply rehashing your day’s experiences or current concerns. However, there is no one accepted view to explain why your dreams take you to the places, situations, and emotional states that they do.
There has been little research on the personality predictors of dream content, which is somewhat surprising given the many attempts in psychology to understand why dreams occur in the first place and then, beyond that, what they mean. After all, wouldn’t the tendencies you display in your waking life become expressed in your dreams? It’s possible that dreams could provide a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde alternative, though, allowing you to show the dark side you keep hidden during the day.
What Might Dark Tetrad People Dream About
Addressing this question of how personality, specifically the dark variety, seeps out into dreams, University of Glasgow’s Tom Jenkins and University of Bath’s Margaret Martin (2023) examined the previous literature and identified several trends suggesting that there is carryover. However, they believe that the field requires a more systematic approach due to some inconsistent findings. Additionally, they believe that it’s not enough to look at the dark triad (Machiavellianism, psychopathy, and narcissism) but that sadism, the fourth component of the dark “tetrad,” needs to be added to the equation.
When you contemplate how these unsavory traits would be expressed in dreams, what comes to mind? Would those people who enjoy making others miserable (those high in sadism) be likely to invoke mental or physical harm in their dreamlike states? The British authors predicted that, yes, it would be those with the combination of Machiavellian and sadistic traits who would dream about fighting, but only when combined with the trait of psychopathy.
Who is most likely to dream about sex? The Freudian model says basically all adults, but Jenkins and Martin suggest that sex would be more likely to emerge in the dreams of narcissists and psychopaths. These less-than-empathic and self-aggrandizing people would also, the authors predict, be more likely to have dreams of glory about themselves.
Testing the Dark Tetrad–Dream Content Connections
The sample of 137 online participants (average age 32 years) completed standard personality measures of dark tetrad traits. To probe into their dream content, the research team asked participants to complete a variant of the “Dream Motif Scale (DMS).” The items on this scale were as follows (participants indicated how often they had these dreams in the past month on a 1-to-5 scale). Try completing this yourself:
- Sexual experiences
- Having a sexual relationship with a big wheel or celebrity
- Killing someone
- Shooting or remote attacks
- Hitting someone or something
- Having superior knowledge or mental ability
- Having magical powers
- Being in a movie, fiction, or drama
- Becoming a certain form of deity
- Becoming a big wheel or celebrity
- Living in a very big home
- Having superior status
- Coming into contact with a big wheel or celebrity
Turning to the results, as predicted, the dark tetrad traits and dreams within all three categories were highly intercorrelated. In separate analyses, men and those with psychopathic personalities were more likely to dream about fighting. Sadism was a predictor on its own with both sexual and grandiosity dreams. Putting these together with the results of other studies (including one showing that extraverts dream more about people), the authors concluded that: “The appearance of waking life behavioral patterns in dreams suggest some continuity between waking and dreaming personality.”
With these patterns emerging, Jenkins and Martin believe they have provided support for the continuity theory of dreaming, which suggests that if people lean toward “violent ideation” while awake, they’ll spend their nights imagining similar scenes. The kind and even-tempered “Dr. Jekyll,” in other words, would not become the murderous and violent “Mr. Hyde” while asleep.
Using These Findings to Inform Your Own Dream Analyses
It's fair to guess that everyone who dreams enjoys a bit of Freudian speculation in some form or another about the meaning of the dreams they remember. The present findings suggest that thinking about your dreams in terms of what they express about your personality could be helpful. Going even further, the authors maintain that such contemplation could become a useful tool in psychotherapy, an idea that definitely harkens back to Freud. However, it’s not the uncovering of unconscious conflict that can be useful. Instead, your dreams could give you insight into aspects of your personality traits that you may not understand all that well.
There’s another way that the present findings could prove helpful to you. If you’re trying to figure out whether to get involved in a relationship with someone you don’t know all that well (romantic or otherwise), try turning the conversation over to the topic of dreaming (without seeming to be prying). If you learn that this person dreams about meeting famous people or becoming a superstar, this can be a sign of underlying grandiosity perhaps reflecting narcissism and psychopathy. It goes without saying that if this person’s dreams involve enjoying criminal acts or putting others down, you would definitely want to limit your involvement with them.
The British study was not without its limitations, as the authors acknowledge. Dreams can be notoriously difficult to recollect, and they can be subject to a great deal of recall bias, especially if they’re not recorded right after a person wakes up. However, even if the recall of a dream is biased in the retelling, might this not also reflect personality traits? If in their waking life dark tetrad individuals seem preoccupied with themes of aggression and grandiosity, it would make sense that they would reinterpret their dreams, whatever they were, in a way consistent with their personalities. After all, as Prospero claimed in The Tempest, “We are such stuff as dreams are made on.”
To sum up, dreams can provide insight into the qualities that make up an individual’s personality. Although you can use this information to protect yourself from dark tetrad individuals, you can also use your dreams as a pathway toward greater self-understanding.
Jenkins, T. A., & Martin, M. (2023). You are what you dream: The dark tetrad and dream content. Dreaming. doi: 10.1037/drm0000252