What does it mean that conservative Republicans have almost three times as many nightmares as do liberal Democrats? When I presented this research finding at a recent conference of the Association for the Study of Dreams, held at the University of California, Santa Cruz, I said my pilot study was far too small (56 participants, 28 on the left and 28 on the right, evenly split between males and females) to support any certain conclusions. However, to my surprise and amusement, this little research factoid—“Republicans have more nightmares than Democrats”—was quickly seized by political partisans on both sides who did not hesitate to assert their interpretation of my findings.
As reported by UPI correspondent Mike Martin, Terry McAuliffe, Democratic National Committee chairman, declared “If George W. Bush were the leader of my party, I’d have trouble sleeping at night, too.” Not to be outdone in the game of “dream spinning,” Kevin Sheridan of the Republican National Committee quickly replied, “What do you expect after eight years of William Jefferson Clinton?” The reaction was not limited to politicians in the U.S.: Alexa McDonough, leader of Canada’s New Democratic Party (on the left side of the political spectrum), said she was not surprised by the findings of my study because true liberals follow their dreams to find creative solutions for problems: “The very essence of building a better world starts with dreaming…. Until we get politics being about chasing dreams again, we’re going to be causing people a lot of nightmares, and we’re mostly going to be implementing right-wing nightmares.”
A number of people on the left sent me emails praising my research, saying it confirmed their conviction that Republicans are by nature repressed, uptight, and insecure. One of my correspondents explained, “Republicans tend to be more out of touch with their own feelings and emotions,” and their repudiated unconscious emotions “later arise in their dreams as nightmares.” Several conservatives also sent me emails, angrily accusing me of being a “tree-hugging liberal” out to slander their political viewpoint. One conservative man who visited my website was evidently disappointed to discover that I’m a man—“I thought only a woman could come up with something so stupid,” he commented, before sharing his hope of joining other Bush supporters in tearing me a new bodily orifice.
I have spoken to the hosts of several talk radio shows since the ASD conference, and every one of them has taken my research as good news for liberals and bad news for conservatives. Radio hosts of a leftward bent enjoy lingering over the gory details of the torments suffered by Republicans in their sleep, while rightward-leaning hosts ask pointed questions about my methodology and make fun of the fact that I live near Berkeley.
I find all these reactions very interesting. Why do so many people assume that having nightmares is a sign of a defective personality? This implicit assumption reveals a widespread attitude toward dreams that does not square with current knowledge. Dream researchers have gathered abundant evidence in recent decades to show that many nightmares serve the valuable function of alerting people to threats and dangers in the waking world. Some researchers call this the “sentinel function” of nightmares, pointing to the evolutionary benefits such dreams might have in terms of promoting heightened vigilance toward potential threats. Nightmares may be frightening and unpleasant, but they often have the beneficial effect of focusing people’s attention on real-world problems.
Seen in this light, the greater frequency of nightmares among conservatives could indicate a greater realism in their approach to life—they could be more attuned to the actual dangers and threats in the world, and more sensitive to the frailties of the human condition in the face of those dangers. If that is so, then perhaps the dreams of liberals, which in my study had a greater frequency of bizarre and magical elements, are not indicative of greater emotional maturity but rather reflect a relatively irrational approach to life, with tendencies toward fanciful, utopian, “otherworldly” thinking.
Again, my study was much too small to decide this question with any certainty. For the moment, I would simply say liberals should not be smug about their supposed psychological superiority, conservatives should not be insulted by the fact of their apparently darker dream life, and anyone who has a nightmare should not immediately assume they are suffering from a severe personality disorder.
Naturally, I hope to build on these preliminary findings on dream content and political ideology by conducting more research. It would be interesting to expand the analysis to include other political parties like the Libertarians and Greens, and also to compare the dreams of politically-active people with the dreams of people who are disaffected from politics. I must say, however, that the most interesting prospect of all, the “Holy Grail” of this line of research, would come from the answer to one simple question. I don’t expect ever to learn the answer, but it’s worth asking anyway: