Is My Dream Research Biased? A Quick Look at Limitations and Suppositions

When I wrote my book, American Dreamers: What Dreams Tell Us about the Political Psychology of Conservatives, Liberals, and Everyone Else,
I expected some resistance such as:

Dreams are crazy nonsense.

Response: Wrong.  Dreams are meaningful expressions of people’s most important concerns, activities, and beliefs in waking life.  Anyone who tells you otherwise hasn’t paid attention to the last half-century of dream research.  For scientific evidence in favor of the “continuity hypothesis” see www.dreamresearch.net

Dream interpretation is Freudian foolishness.

Response: I’m using methods very different from Freudian psychoanalysis.  I start with broad, easily observable patterns in large collections of dreams, and then focus on particular dreams that can further illuminate those patterns.

The author is a leftwing nut job.

Response: True, I live near Berkeley, California.  I have a pony-tail and an androgynous name, and I’m a strong Obama supporter.  So what?  My book still provides a “fair and balanced” account of the political psychology of liberals and conservatives, highlighting the character virtues and weaknesses of each perspective, using methods that anyone can try for themselves.  Take a look at the brief biographies of the 10 members of the “dreamers focus group” and you’ll see the political diversity of the dream material presented in the book.

Limitations to my findings

Limits to the sleep and dream poll:

My friends in the social sciences have pointed out the many uncertainties that bedevil the use of simple statistics like these in arguing for broad psychological theories.  I share their concerns, which were well expressed by de Tocqueville: “When statistical method is not based upon rigorously accurate calculations, it leads to error rather than to guidance.  The mind easily allows itself to be deluded by the deceptive appearance of precision which statistics retain even when wrong and it relies confidently upon mistakes apparently clothed in the forms of mathematical truth” (Democracy in America, 255).  I fully recognize the limits of these data, but I’ll stand by the rigor and accuracy of my calculations regarding the sleep and dream patterns of contemporary Americans until other researchers come up with something better.

Limits to the dreamers focus group:

Without question, the lives of ten people can never be a perfect mirror of a nation of three hundred million.  Any research project that’s based on data from journals, interviews, and surveys runs the danger of over-generalization.  Although I tried to cast as wide a recruiting net as possible, these ten dream-journaling volunteers included no Hispanics or African-Americans, no one from the Midwest or deep South, no high-income professionals, no evangelical Christians, no Jews or Muslims.  Any claims made in this book must be qualified by those limitations.  Still, these ten particular people’s lives embody so many of the challenges facing the country today that it’s fair to view them as representing other Americans with similar experiences and convictions.  We can’t learn everything from this group, but we can learn a lot.

American Dreamers: Defining “Conservative” and “Liberal”

Defining “conservative” and “liberal”

This is how I define the two terms in my book, American Dreamers: What Dreams Tell Us about the Political Psychology of Conservatives, Liberals, and Everyone Else:

In their common usage as adjectives the words “conservative” and “liberal” carry meanings that are more or less opposed to each other.  To be conservative means to safeguard something of value, to protect it for the future, to preserve its integrity against dangerous change.  To be liberal means to act with generosity, tolerance, and openness towards others.  Both terms come from Latin roots: servare, “to watch, keep safe,” and conservare, “to keep, preserve”; liber, “free,” and liberalis, “pertaining to a free man” (i.e., not a slave).

The two words are used in non-political situations every day (e.g., “a conservative estimate,” “a liberal serving”), and there’s no big mystery about their meanings.  The difficulty comes in trying to fathom the alchemical processes by which their political connotations have shifted and morphed over time.  At first sight, the political application of the terms would seem clear.  Conservatives are cautious defenders of the status quo and liberals are free-thinking agents of progress.  Conservatism as a political ideology is usually associated with Edmund Burke’s anxious writings in the late 1700’s about the French Revolution and its violent attempt to create a new and better form of society.  From Burke onward, conservatives have been people who question the wisdom of grandiose plans for social engineering and who prefer to maintain the traditional, trustworthy ways of living that have developed gradually through history.

The political ideology of liberalism first emerged in the Enlightenment philosophies of John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whose writings played a central role in the fight to break free of the Catholic Church’s monopoly on political power in early modern Europe.  Since then, liberals have acted as champions of individual liberty in all spheres of life, envisioning a future of greater happiness and prosperity for everyone, a future that can be achieved by rational thought, cooperative effort, and scientifically-designed technologies.

Liberals, generally speaking, fear the stifling oppression of religious dogma and affirm the natural dignity and power of human reason. Conservatives, meanwhile, worry about radical, uncontrollable change and desire stability and tradition above all else.

That’s how it used to be, anyway.  In twenty-first century American politics the two terms have taken on rather different connotations.  Conservatives today still advocate the classic values of social order, moral discipline, and religious faith.  But most of them are also dedicated to the cause of free market capitalism, an economic system that is relentlessly destabilizing in its impact on communities and individuals (just ask anyone who’s working two jobs or has seen their position moved overseas).  Along with that, American conservatives stand out in their opposition to any real efforts to protect the natural environment—a strange position from an ideology supposedly devoted to preserving the heritage of the past from present and future dangers.  And would anyone who values stability, traditional wisdom, and cautious skepticism towards grandiose plans for change ever have launched the current war in Iraq?  Yet American conservatives did just that, and they continue to be the war’s most passionate advocates.  We’ve come a long way from Edmund Burke.

As for liberals, they remain forceful proponents of greater freedom of expression in American life and more generous care for the poor and underprivileged.  They question the authority of religion in the formulation of public policy, and they push for scientific rationality in solving the problems of society.   But in practice many of their methods have led to an out-of-control rise of state power and governmental interference with people’s lives, limiting individual freedoms in order to favor the interests of one group over another.  We can be sure that Locke and Rousseau would have been astonished at the gargantuan size and dizzying bureaucratic complexity of the American government today.  At a certain point the state apparatus of liberal governance expands to the point where it stops being an agent of change and turns into a self-perpetuating colossus whose inertial mass makes any real change almost impossible.

The upshot is that both terms have flip-flopped in their application to various political issues over the course of American history.  This is one of the many reasons why we must be careful in how we talk about conservatives and liberals in America today.  Ultimately I’m going to argue that everyone’s political attitudes are a mixture of both liberal and conservative ideals, and therefore it’s misleading to separate people into two absolutely distinct types of political personality.

William Safire, Safire’s New Political Dictionary (New York: Random House, 1993).  For more on current research in political psychology, see David O. Sears, Leonie Huddy, and Robert Jervis, ed.s, Oxford Handbook of Political Psychology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003) and John T. Jost and Jim Sidanius, ed.s, Political Psychology: Key Readings (New York: Psychology Press, 2004).  The International Society for Political Psychology also provides top-quality resources in this field (www.ispp.org)

On Nightmares, PTSD, and the War on Terror

Nightmares, PTSD, and the War on Terror

Chapter 2 of the book of my book, American Dreamers: What Dreams Tell Us about the Political Psychology of Conservatives, Liberals, and Everyone Else, is devoted to the impact of the “war on terror” (including the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq) on dreaming.

Three of the focus group members had a direct personal connection to the Iraq war: Dan, who was fighting in it; Sophia, his wife; and Lola, whose nephew had just joined the Army and been deployed to Iraq.  Here are three of their dreams, discussed at more length in chapters 2 and 6.

Dan:“I am an observer or advisor to a small military outpost.  We get attacked by an air assault, planes dropped tons of soldiers all over our camp.  It was men and women in our camp.  I was with a small number of soldiers who escaped, we were walking through the swamp, doing good, when another group of escaping soldiers ran right into us—bringing the enemy on top of us.  We all ran, and I found an empty refrigerator to hide in.  I remember pulling some seal off the door so it wouldn’t seal on me.  I shut the door and waited.  The enemy found me, the guy was mad at me for some reason—I wouldn’t tell him something or I lied—anyway he wanted to cut off my finger.  He asked if I was part of A11 (my company) and I said no.  I noticed a soldier from our camp who was now an advisor or emissary for the enemy.  He stood up for me and saved my finger, and my life.”

Sophia:“Long and horrible….Dreamt Dan was married to both my sister B and myself.  He was taking me to his place of work where we ended up going on a mission.  This work place was under the guise of a normal office with lots of employees, doing normal work—but he was actually a spy or undercover operative doing dangerous missions, but like a contract worker.  At one point I end up with him in a new helicopter vehicle that we have to jump out of.  He has tons of hi-tech vehicles and equipment and acts ambivalent through the whole dream.  I know that B is expecting him to come home later to take her out but the employees cook a huge feast and everyone sits to eat—but I am not invited to sit and I get extremely upset.  It escalates through the dream.  I plead and cry to him to take me home but he won’t.  The dream revolves around me wanting to go home but can’t.”

Lola:“A guy I work (B) with and his wife (V) and I are trying to cross a bridge.  We are on a flat cart with no sides sort of like a carpet ride.  The three of us are zooming very fast on a path.  We go up a big hill of water, down and up and over.  We come to a bridge that is being built.  There are men everywhere with weapons.  We try to reason with them to let us cross.  They take V away.  B and I are locked up in an open cage overlooking the construction of the bridge.  The men are ogling V.  B is getting crazy.  I tell him to keep his cool, that is the only way we are going to escape.  I look out and see a woman in the distance.  She is winking at me and motions for me to look down.  I see a way to escape…We find V and the woman in the distance winks at us to go.  We are back on the cart again on a wild ride.  Up and over we go…We see a big crowd ahead.  It is a stadium and President Bush is there speaking.  We glide right up to him and tell him he must pull the troops out of Iraq, because we have our own war going on right here.  We tell him about the men at the bridges that we just escaped.  He tells us not to worry; he will take care of it.”

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is closely associated with experiences of war and terrorism.  Recurrent nightmares are one of PTSD’s most common symptoms.  For more on the cause and treatment of PTSD, see the following:

Haunted by Combat: Understanding PTSD in War Veterans, Stanley Krippner

The Spiritual Side of Traumatic Stress Normalization, J. Michael Hakanson

Trauma and Dreams, Deirdre Barrett

Dreams of Healing: Transforming Nightmares into Visions of Hope, Kelly Bulkeley

American Dreamers: How Sleep, Dreams, and Religion Intersect

Interested in the ways that sleep, dreams and religion intersect for American Dreamers?  Below are some of the data charts from my book American Dreamers.

Religious Attendance x Sleep

More than once a week Never
Sleep Less than 6 hours a night 11 18
6-8.9 hours a night 84 76
More than 9 hours a night 2 6
Insomnia Never 70 51
1-2 nights a week 13 19
3 or more nights a week 13 27

Religious Attendance x Dream Prototypes

More than once a week Never
A person who’s now dead appearing alive 29 41
Magically flying in the air 25 29
Being chased or attacked 33 45
Falling 40 44
Sexual experiences 34 50
Being in a situation exactly like your regular waking life 53 63
Being aware you’re dreaming and able to control the dream 37 47

Chapter 3 discusses these findings in relation to the religious and spiritual dimensions of the dreams of the journal keepers. For more on dreaming and religion generally, see Dreaming in the World’s Religions: A Comparative History.

Do Conservatives Sleep Better at Night than Liberals?

What do political ideology and sleeping habits have to do with each other?  Lots, as it turns out.  The data below is excerpted from my book American Dreamers.

Sleep and dream poll results: Political ideology

The sleep and dream poll was designed to balance a detailed analysis of the focus group members with a demographically broader and statistically meaningful source of evidence. I wanted to generate the kind of data frequently used in mainstream political analysis and correlate it with data on sleep and dream patterns. The poll was conducted on my behalf by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research in August of 2007. A total of 705 American adults were contacted at home by means of random-digit dialing telephone calls. These people were demographically representative of the U.S. population in terms of age, gender, region, and political outlook. The margin of error for the overall statistical findings was plus or minus 3.7%, slightly higher for the smaller subgroups. The poll data provides two ways of looking at the sleep-dream-politics relationship. In the first, pro-Bush respondents (somewhat or strongly approving of him) were separated from the anti-Bush respondents (somewhat or strongly disapproving) and compared on the frequency of their answers to the sleep and dream questions.

Ideology x Sleep

Liberal Conservative
Sleep Less than 6 hours a night 12 15
6-8.9 hours a night 82 80
More than 9 hours a night 7 4
Insomnia Never 54 63
1-2 nights a week 17 17
3 or more nights a week 28 16

Ideology x Dream Prototypes

Liberal Conservative
A person who’s now dead appearing alive 48 35
Magically flying in the air 23 20
Being chased or attacked 48 40
Falling 54 47
Sexual experiences 47 38
Being in a situation exactly like your regular waking life 58 56
Being aware you’re dreaming and able to control the dream 44 34

Chapter 1 of American Dreamers presents my interpretation of these results.

Quiz: American Dreamers

Read the seven quotations below, and see if you can match them to the seven political leaders who spoke them.

A. President Richard M. Nixon, “First Inaugural Address,” January 20, 1969.
B. President Ronald Reagan, “Remarks about the Congressional Elections,” television broadcast, October 26, 1982.
C. The Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr., “The American Dream,” sermon delivered at Ebenezer Baptist Church, Atlanta, Georgia, July 4, 1965.
D. Senator Hilary Rodham Clinton, introducing the Democratic Leadership Council’s report on “Saving the American Dream,” July 19, 2006.
E. Governor and President-elect George W. Bush, speaking to the Texas Legislature, December 13, 2000.
F. Senator Barack Obama, speaking at a Democratic rally in Tempe, Arizona, October 23, 2006.
G. Steve Forbes, page 5 in A New Birth of Freedom, published October 25, 1999.
1. The American Dream does not come to those who fall asleep…. We have endured a long night of the American spirit. But as our eyes catch the dimness of the first rays of dawn, let us not curse the remaining dark. Let us gather the light.
2. [T]he substance of that dream…is found in those majestic words of the Declaration of Independence, words lifted to cosmic proportions: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by God, Creator, with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” This is a dream. It’s a great dream…. God grant that America will be true to her dream.
3. Deep down, this country wasn’t built on fear. This country was built on hope. This country was built on a belief in limitless possibilities, on a belief in dreaming big dreams.
4. For [more than 200] years, Americans have been united by a simple, common dream that tomorrow will be better than today. The promise of American life, handed on through a dozen generations, rests on this basic bargain: All of us should have the opportunity to live up to our God-given potential, and the responsibility to make the most of it…. To remain strong in the world, the American Dream must be strong and alive here at home. And as we continue to navigate through these changing economic times, restoring the promise of the American Dream is the central economic issue of our time.
5. We believe in the American dream, because we’ve had a chance to live it. The American dream isn’t about the accumulation of material things. It is much deeper and more profound than that. The essence of the American dream is the understanding that we are here on this earth and in this land for a higher purpose: to discover—and develop to the fullest—our God-given potential. Anything that stands in the way of the dream, we must fight. Anything that enhances the dream, we must support.
6. I have faith that with God’s help we as a nation will move forward together as one nation, indivisible. And together we will create an America that is open, so every citizen has access to the American dream; an America that is educated, so every child has the keys to realize that dream; and an America that is united in our diversity and our shared American values that are larger than race or party.
7. It’s time to stop playing on people’s fears and to begin asking what we can do together to make things better. None of us can afford to play politics as usual. We love this land of ours, because it’s a special place where people are free to work, to save, to believe, to build a better future. The cynics may call it corny, but this way of life we all cherish is best summed up in three simple words: the American dream. From our beginnings as a nation, that dream has been a living, breathing reality for millions. It still is. But it faces serious threats.


Answer Key: A-1, B-7, C-2, D-4, E-6, F-3, G-5