A recent study published in Dreaming explored the link between dark personality traits and dream content. The study found that individuals with these traits are more likely to experience dreams containing elements of aggression, sexuality, and grandiosity, reinforcing the idea that a person’s waking life influences their dream content.
The researchers, Tom A. Jenkins and Margaret Martin, conducted the study to investigate the relationship between the content of dreams and four personality traits known as the “Dark Tetrad” (comprised of subclinical psychopathy, narcissism, Machiavellianism, and sadism).
These four traits are characterized by callousness, manipulativeness, lack of empathy, grandiosity, a tendency to exploit others, and a propensity for deriving pleasure from causing harm or distress to others. They represent a cluster of undesirable and antagonistic personality traits associated with antisocial behaviors and a disregard for societal norms and the well-being of others, and they are often used to explain immoral or socially harmful conduct.
Jenkins and Martin aimed to build on previous research that had found connections between personality traits and dream content. They wanted to explore whether the Dark Tetrad traits were reflected in dreams, just as other personality traits have been found to manifest in dream content.
“I became interested in dreams through the work of Carl Jung, who believed that dreams contain a significant personal meaning to the dreamer,” explained Jenkins (@tajenkins_), a PhD student at the University of Bath. “Looking through the scientific literature on dreaming, we found some interesting studies demonstrating links between waking life personality and dreaming – namely that a person’s waking life personality tends to express itself in their dreams.”
“My supervisor at the time was interested in Dark Tetrad personality traits (psychopathy, narcissism, Machiavellianism, and sadism) so this study was a nice way of merging our interests. A study by Minna Lyons and colleagues had recently explored a similar research question, so we wanted to see if we could replicate their findings, whilst adding a couple of new variables to the design.”
The participants were asked to rate the frequency of specific dream experiences related to sex, fighting, and grandiosity, ranging on a scale from “never” to “once a month or more often.” In addition, they completed two other validated measures: the Short Dark Triad (SD3) questionnaire and the Assessment of Sadistic Personality.
The researchers found that all four Dark Tetrad traits were correlated with dream content related to fighting, sex, and grandiosity, indicating that individuals with higher levels of these traits tend to have dreams that contain elements of aggression, sexuality, and grandiose self-perceptions.
“The study supports several others showing some continuity between a person’s waking life and their dream content – we are more likely to dream about the things we do and think more about,” Jenkins explained.
The researchers conducted linear multiple regressions to delve deeper into the relationships between Dark Tetrad traits and specific types of dreams. For fighting dreams, the analysis revealed that psychopathy and gender were significant predictors. Individuals with higher psychopathy scores were more likely to have dreams involving physical confrontations, and gender played a role in predicting the frequency of these dreams as well.
In the case of sexual dreams, sadism emerged as a unique predictor. Individuals with higher levels of sadistic traits were more likely to experience sexual content in their dreams. Similarly, for grandiosity dreams, sadism was again identified as a significant predictor. This indicates that individuals with sadistic tendencies were more likely to have dreams characterized by feelings of superiority and self-importance.
“We found sadism was related to having the most sexual and grandiosity dreams, when theory would suggest this would be psychopathy and narcissism, as they are most strongly associated with sexual activity and grandiosity in waking life,” Jenkins told PsyPost. “We are puzzled by this and would encourage future research into understanding this relationship.”
Regarding potential caveats, Jenkins noted that the “findings show relatively small effects, suggesting that there are most likely other factors determining dream content, and that people who dream frequently about these themes do not necessarily possess Dark Tetrad traits. We used self-report questionnaires to gather data, which allow for only a very limited set of response options. More detailed written accounts of waking and dreaming could provide much a much clearer insight into the relationship between personality traits, behaviors, and dream content.”
The study, “You Are What You Dream: The Dark Tetrad and Dream Content“, was published online on August 3, 2023.