To what extent are our judgments and behaviors affected by what we dream? This question of whether or not dreams affect daily life is one that haunts most of us regularly. We wonder if dreams have specific hidden meanings and if we should truly believe them and/or take action that respond to their content. Is there any way we can learn more about ourselves from what we dream? Carey K. Morewedge of Carnegie Mellon Univesity and Michael I. Norton of Harvard University have done a series of studies that try to answer these questions of the significance our dreams may hold. They argue that we all interpret our dreams with motivated intention that reflects our waking life, as opposed to waking life being a reflection of our dreams.
Why We Believe
There are many people who try to interpret their dreams constantly and try to gather meaning from them. In fact, most of us love to dwell on what we dreamt the night before and try to figure out how it corresponds to our daily lives. So, why is it so natural for us as humans to try to find meaning in our dreams? Morewedge and Norton claim that:
1) Dreams occur at random and are then questioned as to why they appeared
2) There is no correction process for our dreams as opposed to our waking thoughts
3) We use it as evidence for our previous judgments
Because dreams occur seemingly “out of the blue,” we see it almost as divine-intervention. People want validation for their thoughts and behavior and will blame it on anything they can use. If dreams come out of nowhere, they are game to any type of interpretation. There is also the assumption of “why would I have a thought if it was not meaningful?” Dreams also seem immune to any sort of influence from the outside world and are seen as pure versions of our thoughts.
External vs. Internal
Externally generated thoughts are seen as less meaningful as opposed to thoughts that are generated internally. If you are irritated by something, you are more likely to give it any sort of emotional weight if it appears to come from within. If you are aware of the external source causing irritation, you are less likely to change your behavior and judgment. Due to these internal sources, a dream is more likely to be interpreted because there is no external source to trace back to. The dreamer has some access to the dream even though the link itself is ambiguous. The less able people are to attribute thoughts to external sources, the more likely they are to interpret. Another way to think of it is that dreams are almost as easy to dismiss as to consider “a sign from God.”
1) They surveyed various populations to see who believed if dreams revealed hidden truths. The three groups tested were portions of the U.S., Korea and India. The majority in all three believed Freud’s theory about dreams having hidden meaning (56% for Americans, 64% for Koreans and 73% for Indians). Freud’s theory was preferred to: a dream’s role in problem solving, being a byproduct of sensory input and lastly their ability to throw out useless information for improved learning (in that order throughout the cultures).
2) 4 scenarios were given to the tested individuals about a plane crash (a dream, actual knowledge of a plane crash, homeland security issuing an increased alert and finally, simply the thought of a crash). A dream of a plane crash would affect the majority of the population to change their travel plans over even the knowledge of an actual crash.
3) How much people believe their dreams has to do with whether or not they believe Freud’s theory.
4) Dreams about a friend or an enemy: Results derived from previous experiences; pleasant dreams about friends were more meaningful and the same with unpleasant dreams about enemies. No other order held much significance. There was also a posttest done having to do with whether there was a pattern of motivated recollection of dreams. There did not appear to be one.
5) A hypothetical dream featuring a friend kissing the tested individual's significant other. Result was that the dream in which the friend cheats is less meaningful and the dream where that friend defends is seen as more meaningful.
6) God speaks in a dream and makes a request to for the person travel the world or work in a leper colony. The two categories tested were “believers” and “agnostics." Believers saw the dream as more meaningful while the agnostics did not attribute much meaning to it at all.
What people derive from their dreams almost always coincide with what they already believe in daily life. These dreams do affect one’s judgment and behavior but only because it can be used to blame pre-existing thoughts during waking life. The issue of self-preservation seems to play a large part in dreams and how people react to them. The idea of thought interpretation needs to be researched more due to people’s tendency to attribute as much meaning to random thoughts as a long process of focused attention. There is also an element of exerting a type of control in dreams by whatever one chooses to interpret being the force behind an action.
However They Do Provide Some Insight
Just not into the future. People’s concerns, fears and causes of stress can very much show up in their dreams or nightmares. The content provides insight, but it’s not exactly hidden. Dreams can also create self-fulfilling prophecies with people who believe their dreams so intensely and act upon them.
But who knows…
1. Morewedge, C & Norton M. (February 2009). When Dreaming Is Believing: The (Motivated) Interpretation of Dreams. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 96, No. 2, pp. 249-264.