ATTITUDES AND SOCIAL COGNITION
When Dreaming Is Believing: The (Motivated) Interpretation of Dreams
Carey K. Morewedge
Carnegie Mellon University Michael I. Norton
This research investigated laypeople’s interpretation of their dreams. Participants from both Eastern and
Western cultures believed that dreams contain hidden truths (Study 1) and considered dreams to provide
more meaningful information about the world than similar waking thoughts (Studies 2 and 3). The
meaningfulness attributed to specific dreams, however, was moderated by the extent to which the content
of those dreams accorded with participants’ preexisting beliefs—from the theories they endorsed to
attitudes toward acquaintances, relationships with friends, and faith in God (Studies 3–6). Finally, dream
content influenced judgment: Participants reported greater affection for a friend after considering a dream
in which a friend protected rather than betrayed them (Study 5) and were equally reluctant to fly after
dreaming or learning of a plane crash (Studies 2 and 3). Together, these results suggest that people engage
in motivated interpretation of their dreams and that these interpretations impact their everyday lives.
Keywords: anchoring, attribution, dreams, motivated reasoning, unconscious thought
Yet it is in our idleness, in our dreams, that the submerged truth
sometimes comes to the top.—Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own
A dream which is not interpreted is like a letter which is not read.—
Each morning, many people glance suspiciously across the bed
at the person who broke their heart moments before with imagined
infidelities, or fight the urge to change travel plans despite having
foreseen their death in a fiery plane crash. The bitter thoughts and
strong emotions that such experiences evoke attest to the potency
of information “revealed” in dreams. In the present investigation,
we examined laypersons’ beliefs about the importance of dreams,
the manner in which they interpret dreams, and the consequences
of these interpretations on their beliefs and behavior. Psycholo-
gists’ interpretations of the meaning of dreams range widely, from
a view of dreams as the by-product of increased activity in brain
regions engaged during sleep (Muzur, Pace-Schott, & Hobson,
2002) to a view of dreams as “the royal road to the unconscious,”
which reveal hidden truths (Freud, 1900/1953; Jung, 1974; Weg-
ner, Wenzlaff, & Kozak, 2004). We suggest that—despite dis-
agreement among scientists—laypeople endorse the latter perspec-
tive, holding a general belief that dreams provide meaningful
insight into both themselves and their world. In addition, we
propose that people’s interpretation of the meaningfulness of any
specific dream is impacted, by the extent to which that dream
accords with their beliefs and desires when awake, and that these
interpretations subsequently influence the impact of dreams on
their diurnal (i.e., waking) lives.
THE INTERPRETATION OF DREAMS
Aside from the ubiquity of psychoanalytic theories in art, liter-
ature, film, and other media (Baumeister, 2005), why might people
endorse the Freudian theory that dream content is meaningful,
believing that their dreams provide special insight?
in dreams often feature familiar people and locations, and thus can
be difficult to distinguish from events that occur while awake
(Johnson, Foley, Suengas, & Raye, 1988; Mazzoni & Loftus,
1996). We suggest, however, that people do not merely lend the
same amount of credence to thoughts that occur in dreams as
thoughts that occur while awake but actually treat the content of
their dreams as more meaningful than the content of similar
waking thoughts. More specifically, a decreased ability to trace
dream content to an external source may lead people to give
We use Bering’s (2003) conception of meaning throughout this arti-
cle—that people believe that the mental and physical events they consider
to be meaningful have some reason or purpose, even if the reason for or
purpose of the event is unknown to them.
Carey K. Morewedge, Department of Social and Decision Sciences,
Carnegie Mellon University; Michael I. Norton, Harvard Business School,
We thank Paul Litvak, Benoıˆt Monin and Dan Wegner for their helpful
comments, and Jennifer Bartels, Arudra Burra, Jiyhe Chong, Larissa
Chopyk, Amy Cuddy, Alex Davis, Leah Feola, Bobby Jones, Reetika
Khera, Matthew Killingsworth, Amit Kumar, Rebecca Levine, Sara Rabi-
novich, Mindi Rock, Todd Rogers, Shimon Saphire-Bernstein, Sarah Sears,
Jill Swencionis, and Alicia Warlick for their assistance in the execution of
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Carey K.
Morewedge, Department of Social and Decision Sciences, Carnegie Mel-
lon University, 5000 Forbes Avenue, 208 Porter Hall, Pittsburgh, PA
15213. E-mail: email@example.com
Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2009, Vol. 96, No. 2, 249–264
© 2009 American Psychological Association 0022-3514/09/$12.00 DOI: 10.1037/a0013264
greater weight to that seemingly random information and increase
the likelihood that it will impact subsequent judgments and behav-
ior. Ironically, then, although the content of dreams often appears
to be produced purely by random associations (Muzur et al., 2002),
which might make one expect that information to seem less mean-
ingful, it may be the apparent randomness of those associations
that makes people believe their dreams.
This prediction is grounded in two classic lines of research in
psychology: research exploring anchoring effects and research
exploring attribution. Countless studies exploring numerical an-
choring effects have demonstrated the remarkable tendency for
random and irrelevant information to exert undue influence on
subsequent judgment (Tversky & Kahneman, 1974). In standard
experimenter-provided anchoring experiments, numerical esti-
mates are biased in the direction of a number provided in a
comparative judgment made before the estimate. For example,
participants first asked whether the average price of a German car
was greater or less than 20,000 Deutsche Marks (about $15,019
U.S.) for instance, they estimated the average price of a German
car to be lower than did participants who first asked whether the
average price of a German car was greater or less than 40,000
Deutsche Marks (about $30,039 U.S.) (Mussweiler & Strack,
2000). Because people display a general tendency to believe and
seek validation for the content of their thoughts (Griffin & Ross,
1991; Klayman & Ha, 1987; Pronin, Gilovich, & Ross, 2004;
Trope & Liberman, 1996), it is not surprising that, given some
information, people first treat that information as valid and only
subsequently attempt to adjust or correct those beliefs to reflect the
actual veracity of that information (Gilbert, 1991). In some sense,
the importance initially ascribed to one’s thoughts can thus be
attributed to a simple counterfactual: Why would I have thought
(or dreamt) this if it were not meaningful? Indeed, implausible
information (e.g., “Did Gandhi live to be greater or less than
1,000,000 years old?”) exerts a similar impact (Ariely, Loewen-
stein, & Prelec, 2003; Mussweiler & Strack, 2000), attesting to the
fact that even one’s most outlandish thoughts can influence judg-
ment in this manner.
The meaning attributed to one’s thoughts does not, however,
explain why thoughts that occur in dreams would be accorded
more weight than thoughts that occur while awake. Certainly,
unconscious thought influences judgment and behavior (Aarts &
Dijkskterhuis, 1999; Bargh & Chartrand, 1999; Dijksterhuis, Char-
trand, & Aarts, 2007; Greenwald, Poehlman, Uhlmann, & Banaji,
in press), but it may be the manner of their generation rather than
their concealed nature that lends them such importance. As Freud
(1955/1910) first noted, unconscious thoughts appear powerful
precisely because they seem immune to other influences to which
conscious thoughts are susceptible (see Spence & Holland, 1962).
We suggest that unconscious thoughts, such as dreams, exert a
stronger influence on judgment than similar conscious information
because they appear to be internally generated and are therefore
less likely to trigger correction processes. Indeed, self-generated
thoughts (i.e., those for which an external source is not evident)
can exert a particularly powerful influence on judgment (Epley &
Gilovich, 2001, 2006; Slamecka & Graf, 1978). A lack of aware-
ness of primes, for example, can increase the magnitude of mere
exposure effects (Bornstein, 1989; Bornstein & D’Agostino,
1994). Most important for our account, when people become
aware that their thoughts may have been externally generated, as
when primed supraliminally, they attempt to correct for those
external influences (Schwarz & Bless, 1992; Wegener & Petty,
1995, 1997; Wilson & Brekke, 1994). In short, unconscious
thoughts such as dreams should be more likely to influence judg-
ment than conscious thoughts with similar content because of the
tendency to correct for the apparent influence of external sources
on the latter form of thinking.
Our assertion that people are more likely to perceive dreams as
internally generated than waking thoughts—a necessary precursor
to according dreams more meaning—is grounded in research ex-
amining the attribution of attitudes and beliefs to other actors. The
fundamental distinction in the attribution literature is whether
behavior is attributed either to an actor’s situation or to an actor’s
disposition (Bem, 1972; Ross & Nisbett, 1991), and the extent to
which observers believe a behavior reveals something meaningful
about the actor is largely a function of whether that behavior can
be attributed to the actor’s situation. We suggest that a similar
process underlies people’s interpretations of the meaning of their
conscious thoughts and dreams. When thoughts are easily attrib-
uted to an external source, they are unlikely to be perceived as
internally generated and consequently are considered less impor-
tant and are less likely to influence the thinker’s judgment and
behavior. In Schachter and Singer’s (1962) classic study, for
example, participants who were not informed that their arousal was
externally generated were most likely to attribute that arousal to
their irritation with a confederate, whereas participants who were
informed that their arousal was externally generated (and could
attribute that emotion to the shot they were administered) were less
likely to behave in a manner suggesting that they were irritated.
It is thus the more tenuous link between the external world and
unconscious thoughts that rise to the level of consciousness such as
dreams than between the external world and similar conscious
thoughts that make unconscious thoughts more likely to be per-
ceived as internally generated and interpreted as more meaningful
to the thinker. Dreams are perhaps the form of unconscious
thought best suited to test this prediction, as dreams are uncon-
scious thoughts that are ambiguously linked to the external world,
but at the same time are unconscious thoughts to which the thinker
has some access. Compare interpsychic information that appears in
a dream to the same information appearing in a thought during the
day: Imagine a woman who has either a waking thought or a dream
of her husband being unfaithful. If the thought occurred during the
day, then the thinker could easily attribute that thought to the fact
that she just received an e-mail from her husband, for example, or
may even have seen a coworker to whom she is sure her husband
would be attracted. In either case, the waking thought could easily
be attributed to an external stimulus in the immediate environment.
Although the thought may still be upsetting, it is more likely that
the thinker might “correct” for the external source of her suspi-
cions than confront her husband.
Should that thought of infidelity occur in a dream, however, the
connection to the external stimuli that may have prompted it is less
evident. By definition, sleep involves a decreased awareness of
external events, and thus the thoughts that occur during sleep (i.e.,
dreams) generally lack an immediate external cause to which they
may be attributed. Of course, dreams are sometimes attributed to
external causes (e.g., a loud ringing in a dream may be readily
attributed to the sound of one’s alarm clock ringing in the morn-
ing), but their internal generation in the absence of immediate
250 MOREWEDGE AND NORTON
external stimuli makes them less likely to be attributed to external
causes and more likely to be interpreted. As it is thus more difficult
to attribute the suspicious thought in her dream to an external
source, the wife may be less likely to correct for this suspicion and
therefore be more likely to confront her husband.
The increased meaning attributed to dreams compared with
similar thoughts is not limited to interpsychic dreams of infidelity.
Our account suggests that whenever people are less able to at-
tribute some thought to an external source, that thought will be
seen as more meaningful. Indeed, even a quick survey through
one’s own dreams reveals the enormous variability of dream
content, from mundane dreams about one’s daily life, to commu-
nications with deceased loved ones and deities, to dreams about
future real-world events such as one’s death. We suggest that
across this wide range of both inter- and intrapsychic content,
dreams are not only unlikely to be dismissed but also likely to be
considered more meaningful than conscious thoughts containing
similar information, and are therefore more likely to influence
attitudes and behavior.
Of course, people do not entirely fail to correct for their dream
content: Not everyone who dreams of a plane crash cancels his or
her flight. Rather, we suggest that people are less likely to correct
for the possibility of external influence when ascribing meaning to
their dreams than to similar conscious thoughts, and are therefore
more likely to be influenced by their dreams. What might prompt
individuals to correct for the impact of the thoughts and images
that arise in their dreams? Imagine the different emotions experi-
enced after a dream of an intimate encounter with one’s own
significant other compared with a dream of an intimate encounter
with the significant other of a close friend. Both dreams should be
considered more meaningful and be more influential than similar
waking thoughts. Factors that impact the influence of conscious
thoughts on judgment and behavior, however, should impact the
influence of those dreams as well.
In waking life, people exhibit a motivated interpretation of
thoughts and information, ascribing more meaning to thoughts and
information that accord with their existing beliefs and desires. Like
conscious thoughts, undesirable or negative dreams could thus be
interpreted defensively, in a manner that allows dreamers to main-
tain a positive view of the self (Kruglanski, 1989; Kunda, 1990;
Murray, 1938; Pyszczynski & Greenberg, 1987; Taylor & Brown,
1988). This account would predict that greater meaning would be
ascribed to the dream of an intimate encounter with one’s own
significant other than with the significant other of a close friend, as
the latter would have more disturbing implications. Alternatively,
dreamers may be motivated to interpret dreams as providing un-
filtered insight into their unconscious beliefs and desires (Molden
& Higgins, 2005), which would suggest that both desirable and
undesirable dreams should be considered meaningful.
When such conflicts arise, we suggest that people exhibit the
former kind of motivated interpretation, viewing the ambiguous
images and thoughts that arise in dreams in a manner that bolsters
their diurnal beliefs and desires (Ditto & Lopez, 1992; Gilovich,
1983; Hastorf & Cantril, 1954; Lord, Ross, & Lepper, 1979;
Swann, Stein-Seroussi, & Giesler, 1992). Certainly, perceivers
take a motivated approach when interpreting their environment,
thoughts, and behavior. Basic visual perception is affected by
perceivers’ motivations, such that ambiguous images are inter-
preted in a manner that foretells desirable rather than undesirable
future experiences (Balcetis & Dunning, 2006). Explicit self-
evaluations tend to be peculiarly charitable in ambiguous domains,
in which there is ample room for favorable interpretation (Dun-
ning, Meyerowitz, & Holzberg, 1989; Kruger & Dunning, 1999).
Most important, just as people view tests that reflect favorably on
them to be more “truthful” than tests that do not (Ditto, Munro,
Apanovitch, Scepansky, & Lockhart, 2003; Ditto, Scepansky, Mu-
nro, Apanovitch, & Lockhart, 1998), dreamers may consider
dreams reflecting their existing beliefs and desires to be more
“truthful” than dreams that do not. In short, dreaming may be
believing—in that people are likely to see meaning in their
dreams—but the weight accorded to particular dreams may be
moderated by the extent to which dreams are in accordance with
dreamers’ agendas once awake.
We report the results of six studies in which we examined two
hypotheses related to the motivated interpretation of dreams. First,
we propose that people perceive dream content to be particularly
meaningful and to provide insight into their diurnal lives. In Study
1, we tested the validity of this assertion by examining laypersons’
endorsement of four prominent theories of dreaming, including the
Freudian view that dreams contain hidden meaning. In Study 2,
we further tested whether lay perceivers consider dreams to be
more meaningful than similar conscious thoughts by comparing
the impact of dreamed events with the impact of conscious
thoughts on intentions to engage in a future behavior. In Study 3,
we explored whether the belief that dreams are more meaningful
than similar waking thoughts is restricted to individuals who
endorse the Freudian view that dreams contain hidden meaning or
whether the belief that dreams are more meaningful than thoughts
is widely held.
Second, although dreams should be seen as more meaningful
than similar thoughts, we propose that perceivers take a motivated
approach to the interpretation of their dreams, engaging in correc-
tion processes when such correction is self-serving. In Study 4,
participants recalled actual dreams involving an acquaintance. We
examined the extent to which the meaning attributed to those real
dreams could be predicted by the correspondence between the
positivity of their dreams and the positivity of their attitudes
toward those acquaintances. In Study 5, we explored the impact of
dream interpretations on perceivers’ diurnal lives by examining
how interpretations of a dream about a friend’s commendable or
deplorable behavior impacted attitudes toward that friend. Finally,
in Study 6, we examined two motivated components of dream
interpretation by testing whether the meaningfulness attributed to
dreams about communications from deities depended both on the
(religious) beliefs of the perceiver and the desirability of the
Interestingly, Freud embraced both notions: The idea that people
contort reality to preserve and buttress their beliefs and opinions can be
traced to Freud’s (1894/1962) taxonomy of defense mechanisms, yet he
also argued that dreams provide privileged insight into the unconscious
THE (MOTIVATED) INTERPRETATION OF DREAMS
STUDIES 1, 2, AND 3: DREAMING IS BELIEVING
To test our first hypothesis, we examined the extent to which
dreams are considered meaningful sources of information in sev-
eral different ways. In Study 1, we assessed how three distinct
groups of participants—students from the United States, South
Korea, and India—endorsed four prominent theories of dreaming.
We predicted that participants from all three cultures would be
more likely to endorse a theory suggesting that dream content has
meaning than theories suggesting otherwise. Participants in Study
2 imagined that a frightening event (a plane crash) either occurred
in a dream, occurred in a diurnal conscious thought, actually
occurred, or was deemed likely to occur by federal authorities. We
predicted that participants would report being more affected by the
dream than by the conscious thought and used the meaningfulness
attributed to the other sources of information as benchmarks by
which to further assess the meaningfulness attributed to the dream.
Finally, in Study 3, we explored whether the meaning attributed to
dream content varies as a function of the theory of dreams one
endorses. We expected that all participants would consider a dream
more meaningful than a similar conscious thought, whereas the
extent to which participants considered the dream more meaning-
ful than other sources of information would vary in accordance
with the theory of dreaming that they endorsed.
Participants rated the extent to which they endorsed four prom-
inent theories of dreaming. We expected participants to consider
dreams meaningful and rate the Freudian view of dreams—that
dreams reveal hidden truths about the self—more highly than a
theory that dream content is a by-product of unrelated brain
activity as well as two other theories suggesting that the function
of dreams is important but that dream content results from the
filtration of external stimuli. Most important, we attempted to
assess the universality of the belief that dream content is mean-
ingful by surveying populations from three cultures: the United
States, South Korea, and India (Markus & Kitayama, 1991; Nis-
bett, Peng, Choi, & Norenzayan, 2001).
United States student sample. Fifty undergraduate and gradu-
ate students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in
Cambridge, Massachusetts (31 women; M
⫽27.3, SD ⫽12.0)
participated in a short survey in a campus student center in ex-
change for candy.
South Korean student sample. Fifty-seven students in a psy-
chology class at Korea University in Seoul, Korea (22 women;
⫽21.8, SD ⫽2.5) completed the survey in a packet of
unrelated surveys as part of a requirement for an introductory
psychology course. The survey was translated into Korean by a
Korean research assistant unaware of the hypothesis and checked
for accuracy by an independent translator.
Indian student sample. Forty-two undergraduate students at
the Delhi School of Economics and master’s students at Jawa-
harlal Nehru University in New Delhi, India (9 women; M
21.6, SD ⫽3.2) participated in a short online survey in ex-
change for participation in a lottery. The survey was adminis-
tered in English.
In a within-subjects design, each participant assessed four prom-
inent theories of dreams, described in nontechnical language:
Dreams provide “useful insights into how to solve problems”
(Cartwright, 1974; Cavallero & Foulkes, 1993; Wagner, Gais,
Haider, Verleger, & Born, 2004); dreams are a by-product of
unrelated brain activity that occur “when the brain tries to interpret
random impulses from the pons as sensory input, producing vivid
hallucinations” (Hobson & McCarley, 1977; Muzur et al., 2002);
dreams reveal hidden truths “when emotions buried in the uncon-
scious surface in disguised form” (Freud 1953/1900; Wegner et al.,
2004); and dreams assist learning as they “throw out unwanted
information to prevent information from becoming jumbled”
(Crick & Mitchison, 1983; Maquet, 2001; Revonsuo, 2000; Stick-
The exact wording of each theory appears in the
Appendix; the theories were not labeled. Participants reported the
extent to which they agreed with each theory on four identical
7-point scales ranging from 1 (do not agree at all)to7(agree
completely). Finally, participants circled the theory they consid-
ered most true.
United States Student Sample
As expected, participants were more likely to endorse the Freud-
ian theory that dreams reveal hidden truths (M⫽4.84, SD ⫽1.70)
than the problem-solving (M⫽3.40, SD ⫽1.81), by-product
(M⫽3.98, SD ⫽1.56), or learning theories (M⫽3.78, SD ⫽
1.93); support for the Freudian theory was significantly greater
than for each of the other theories, all ts(49) ⬎2.54, all ps⬍.01.
In addition, the majority of participants (56%) selected the Freud-
ian theory as most true, far more than any of the other options:
problem solving (8%), by-product (18%), or learning (18%),
N⫽50) ⫽26.96, p⬍.001 (see Figure 1).
South Korean Student Sample
As before, the Freudian theory that dreams reveal hidden truths
(M⫽5.28, SD ⫽1.07) was endorsed more highly than each of the
other theories: problem solving (M⫽3.53, SD ⫽1.44), by-
product (M⫽4.60, SD ⫽1.39), or learning theories (M⫽3.05,
SD ⫽1.22), all ts(56) ⬎3.28, all ps⬍.001. In this sample, nearly
two thirds of participants (64.9%) thought the Freudian theory
most true, far more than any of the other options: problem solving
(3.5%), by-product (29.8%), or learning (1.8%),
(3, N⫽57) ⫽
59.70, p⬍.001 (see Figure 1).
Indian Student Sample
Once again, the Freudian theory that dreams reveal hidden truths
(M⫽5.29, SD ⫽1.60) was endorsed more highly than each of the
Italics in quotes were added for emphasis.
252 MOREWEDGE AND NORTON
other theories: problem solving (M⫽3.33, SD ⫽1.72), by-
product (M⫽3.90, SD ⫽1.54), or learning theories (M⫽2.90,
SD ⫽1.41), all ts(41) ⬎3.78, all psⱕ.001. In this sample, nearly
three quarters of participants (73.8%) thought the Freudian theory
most true, far more than any of the other options: problem solving
(11.9%), by-product (9.5%), or learning (4.8%),
(3, N⫽42) ⫽
53.81, p⬍.001 (see Figure 1).
As predicted, the theory of dreams that emphasized their mean-
ing (i.e., the Freudian view that dreams contain hidden truths) was
most strongly endorsed, whether assessed with scale ratings or a
forced-choice measure. Participants were thus more likely to en-
dorse a theory of dreams suggesting that dreams reveal meaningful
internally generated information that bubbles to the surface of
consciousness than two theories suggesting that dreams’ function
is meaningful, but dream content merely reflects the day’s events
(the learning and problem-solving theories), and a theory suggest-
ing that neither dreams’ function nor content are meaningful (the
by-product theory). These results held across three different cul-
tures, in samples of college students in South Korea, India, and the
United States. Although researchers still debate the function of
dreams and dream content’s meaning, laypeople around the world
appear to believe that dreams serve an important function and have
meaning, revealing hidden truths.
Participants in our first study were most likely to endorse a
theory of dreams suggesting that dreams contain meaningful in-
formation. In our next study, we examined the extent to which
people attribute meaning to the information revealed in dreams. In
an ancillary survey of commuters in Boston, Massachussets (N⫽
81; 46 women; M
⫽24.0, SD ⫽8.1), the majority of partici-
pants reported that dreams impacted their everyday behavior—
influencing both their social relations (67%) and decision making
(52%)—perhaps due to their reported belief that dreams foretell
the future (68%) and that at least one of their dreams had come true
(63%). These results lend further support to our assertion that lay
perceivers consider dreams to provide important insight into their
We sought to establish in Study 2 the degree of importance lay
perceivers grant to dreams by comparing the impact of dreamed
events with the impact of both imagined and real-world events on
their proclivity to engage in a behavior. As outlined earlier, we
suggest that dreams should be ascribed more importance than
similar conscious thoughts. Therefore, we expected participants to
report being more affected by events occurring in dreams than by
the same event occurring in a waking thought. To benchmark the
importance of dreams in comparison to other forms of information,
we compared the impact of dreams with the impact of similar
One hundred eighty-two commuters at South Station in Boston
(95 women; M
⫽35.9, SD ⫽16.0) volunteered to participate.
In a between-subjects design, participants completing a survey
on “air traffic safety” were asked to imagine one of four scenarios:
that the night before one of their scheduled airline trips either (a)
the United States Department of Homeland Security (n.d.) issued
a warning by raising the national threat level to “Orange,” indi-
cating a high risk of terrorist attack; (b) they thought consciously
about their plane crashing on the flight they planned to take; (c)
they dreamt about a plane crash on the flight they planned to take;
or that (d) a real plane crash occurred on the route they planned to
take. Participants then reported how anxious they would feel if
they were scheduled to fly that day and how likely they would be
to avoid flying on 5-point scales ranging from 0 (not at all
anxious/likely)to4(extremely anxious/likely). A composite mea-
sure of these two items was created, as they were highly correlated,
r(180) ⫽.69, p⬍.001.
As expected, participants were differently impacted by the type
of information they considered, F(3, 178) ⫽4.15, p⫽.007,
.07. Participants were more likely to report that a dream of a plane
crash would affect their travel plans than a conscious thought of a
crash or a warning from the government, F(1, 178) ⫽9.16, p⫽
.003, r⫽.32; and, F(1, 178) ⫽3.54, p⫽.05, r⫽.19, respec-
tively. Even an actual plane crash did not exceed a dream of a
Figure 1. Participants in the United States, South Korea, and India were more likely to prefer the Freudian
theory of dream content than three other prominent theories of dream content (Study 1).
THE (MOTIVATED) INTERPRETATION OF DREAMS
plane crash in its impact on the likelihood that they would engage
in air travel (F⬍1; see Figure 2).
Dreams appear to be potent sources of information. Participants
considered a dream of a plane crash to be more unsettling than an
identical waking thought and a federal warning indicating a “high
risk of a terrorist attack,” and as unsettling as an actual crash.
While these reports reflect the impact of information on feelings
about flying rather than actual behavior, results from our ancillary
survey—in which the majority of participants reported that dreams
influence their everyday lives—suggest a general willingness to
heed advice distilled from dream content. In short, the results of
the first two studies suggest that dreamed events, even when
unpleasant, are perceived to be meaningful sources of information,
to be more meaningful than similar conscious thoughts, and can
even be perceived to provide information as important as similar
Endorsement of the Freudian theory of dreams appears most
prevalent across cultures, yet a portion of each of the populations
surveyed endorsed one of the other three prominent theories of
dreaming (Study 1). It is thus important to assess whether the
meaningfulness attributed to information appearing in dreams in
Study 2 reflected only the opinions of those endorsing the Freudian
view or whether dreams are generally considered meaningful
sources of information. In Study 3, we assessed whether belief in
the meaningfulness of information appearing in dreams varied
with regard to the theory of dreams that participants endorsed.
Our account predicts a greater impact of dreams than similar
thoughts on judgment and behavior, irrespective of the theory of
dreams that people believe most true. As those theories may
influence the extent to which dreams are considered important
sources of information, however, we also expected participants
who believe dream content is generated for external reasons or for
no reason (i.e., reflecting one’s current problems, distilling the
day’s events, or completely random) to consider dreams less
meaningful than participants who believe dreams are generated for
internal reasons (i.e., revealing hidden truths about the self).
Three hundred forty-one pedestrians in Cambridge, Massachus-
sets (205 women; M
⫽26.6, SD ⫽13.0) participated in ex-
change for candy.
In a within-subjects design, participants first rated four theories
of dreams (see the Appendix) on scales identical to those described
in Study 1 and reported which theory was their favorite and then
imagined each of the following three scenarios: that the night
before one of their scheduled airline trips, either (a) they con-
sciously thought about their plane crashing on the flight they
planned to take; (b) they dreamt about a plane crash on a flight
they planned to take; or that (c) a real plane crash occurred on the
route they planned to take. Participants then ranked the events,
from the event (1) most likely to make them cancel or miss their
flight to the event (3) least likely to make them cancel or miss their
As in Study 1, the Freudian view theory that dreams reveal
hidden truths (M⫽5.17, SD ⫽1.60) was endorsed more highly by
participants than each of the other theories: problem solving (M⫽
3.99, SD ⫽1.75), by-product (M⫽4.26, SD ⫽1.57), or learning
theories (M⫽3.58, SD ⫽1.79), all ts(340) ⬎8.03, all ps⬍.001,
all rs⬎.40. It was also most often selected as the favorite theory
(49.3%), more often than the problem-solving (12.3%), by-product
(22.0%), or learning theories (16.4%),
(3, N⫽341) ⫽113.53,
To test whether beliefs about the source of dream content
influences the meaningfulness ascribed to information distilled
from dreams, we divided participants into two groups—those who
most preferred the Freudian theory of dream content (i.e., Freud-
ians) and those who most preferred one of the three alternative
theories (i.e., non-Freudians). First, we performed Friedman chi-
square tests within each group of participants to test whether the
Considered separately, participants’ reports of the anxiety they would
feel and how likely they would avoid flying were similarly influenced by
the type of information they considered, F(3, 178) ⫽4.38, p⫽.005,
.07; and, F(3, 178) ⫽2.81, p⫽.04,
⫽.05. Reported feelings and
behavior were influenced to a greater extent by a dream of a plane crash
⫽2.16, SD ⫽1.38; M
⫽1.25, SD ⫽1.56) than by the
conscious thought of a crash (M
⫽1.26, SD ⫽1.20; M
0.56, SD ⫽0.93), Fs(1, 178) ⱖ6.19, ps⬍.01, rsⱖ.26, respectively. Of
interest is that dreams made participants more anxious but no more likely
to avoid flying than a warning from the government (M
⫽1.48, SD ⫽
⫽.94, SD ⫽1.30), F
(1, 178) ⫽5.77, p⫽.02, r⫽
.24; and, F
(1, 178) ⫽1.25, p⫽.27. Even an actual plane crash
did not exceed a dream of a plane crash in its impact on their feelings or
⫽2.00, SD ⫽1.46; M
⫽1.28, SD ⫽1.44)
Figure 2. Participants were more likely to report that a dream of a plane
crash would affect their travel plans than a conscious thought of a crash or
a warning from the federal government. Even an actual plane crash did not
exceed a dream of a plane crash in its impact on the reported likelihood that
they would engage in air travel (Study 2). Bars represent ⫾1 standard
254 MOREWEDGE AND NORTON
three kinds of information (i.e., an actual plane crash, a dream of
a plane crash, and a thought of a plane crash) were attributed
different degrees of importance. Those tests revealed significant
differences between the importance attributed to the three kinds of
information within both groups of participants,
168) ⫽55.84, p⬍.001; and,
(2, N⫽173) ⫽70.18,
p⬍.001. Next, we compared the rank orderings made by the two
groups using Schucany and Frawley’s (1973) statistic (as sug-
gested by Dekle, Leung, & Zhu, 2008), which revealed that their
rank orderings were not concordant (Z⫽⫺.88, p⫽.48). As the
two groups’ rank orderings were discordant, they were examined
Both participants endorsing the Freudian theory and participants
endorsing the alternative theories considered dreams to be more
meaningful than similar conscious thoughts (Z
Wilcoxon Signed Ranks
7.35, p⬍.001 and Z
Wilcoxon Signed Ranks
⫽6.81, p⬍.001, respec-
tively). As expected, however, the theory of dreaming participants
endorsed affected the relative importance they attributed to
dreams. Participants who did not endorse the Freudian theory
reported that an actual plane crash would be more influential than
a dream of a plane crash (Z
Wilcoxon Signed Ranks
whereas participants who endorsed the Freudian theory reported
that a dream of a plane crash would be marginally more influential
than an actual plane crash (Z
Wilcoxon Signed Ranks
see Figure 3).
Irrespective of the theory of dreaming that they endorsed, par-
ticipants considered dreams to provide meaningful information.
Participants endorsing Freudian and non-Freudian theories of
dreams reported that a dream of their plane crashing would make
them more likely to avoid a future flight than a similar conscious
thought. Remarkably, participants who endorsed the Freudian the-
ory considered information distilled from dreams to be even more
influential than similar real-world events, whereas participants
endorsing non-Freudian theories of dreaming considered informa-
tion distilled from dreams to be only slightly less important than
similar real-world events. Regardless of the theory of dreams that
they endorsed, participants thus considered dreams to be more
important than similar thoughts occurring to them while awake and
almost as important as or more important than the real-world event
that the dream reflected. These findings suggest not only that
dreams are considered to be more meaningful sources of informa-
tion than similar conscious thoughts but also that the meaning
accorded to dreams is influenced by the theory of dreams that the
dreamer endorses. Although all participants considered a dream of
a plane crash to be meaningful, participants endorsing the Freudian
theory of dreams were more affected by that dream than partici-
pants endorsing other theories.
STUDIES 4, 5, AND 6: THE (MOTIVATED)
INTERPRETATION OF DREAMS
The first three studies elucidate two important and interrelated
aspects of laypersons’ beliefs about dream content: Most people
believe that dreams reveal meaningful information about them-
selves and their world and that their dreams hold more meaning
than similar waking thoughts. Using a plane crash to test the latter
point constitutes a strong test of the importance of dreams: If
people have any desire to dismiss their dreams as meaningless,
then they should be most likely to do so with negative dreams, as
such dreams provide undesirable information about one’s self and
world. Indeed, it would be much more pleasant to simply consider
that dream meaningless and fly without the lingering image of a
plane crash in the back of one’s mind. Although dreams of this
negative event were considered meaningful, many participants
were not willing to accord a dream of a plane crash the same
significance as an actual plane crash, suggesting that people do
engage in some correction when determining the importance of
negative dreams. Subsequent studies explored whether participants
would be less motivated to engage in correction when dreams
contained information confirming their beliefs and desires than
when dreams contained disconfirming or negative information.
Having found support in Studies 1, 2, and 3 for our first
hypothesis—that people consider dream content to be meaningful
and provide important insight into their waking lives—we tested
our second hypothesis in Studies 4, 5, and 6: That people do not
consider all information in dreams to be equally important, but
rather that their dream interpretations are influenced by the extent
to which events in dreams accord with their views of reality when
awake. Just as more effort is exerted when critiquing undesirable
real-world information (Ditto et al., 2003, 1998; Klein & Kunda,
1992), we predicted that people would take a motivated approach
when interpreting dream content—ascribing greater meaning to
dreams that matched their preexisting beliefs and desires. Initial
evidence for a motivated interpretation of dreams is present in
Study 3. Although participants were unable to entirely dismiss an
unsettling dream of a plane crash (or dismiss that dream as easily
as a similar conscious thought), the dream theory participants
Figure 3. Participants who preferred the Freudian theory reported that a
dream of their plane crashing would be more likely to induce them to
cancel a flight than an actual plane crash on their scheduled route, whereas
participants who preferred alternative theories of dream content reported
that a dream of their plane crashing would be less likely to induce them to
cancel a flight than an actual plane crash. Both groups considered the
dream to be more influential than a similar conscious thought (Study 3).
Bars represent ⫾1 standard error.
THE (MOTIVATED) INTERPRETATION OF DREAMS
endorsed influenced the extent to which they dismissed it. Partic-
ipants in Study 3 who endorsed the Freudian theory of dreams
were relatively less likely to dismiss the dream than participants
endorsing one of the other three theories. These results suggest not
only that dreams are considered important sources of information
but also that the extent to which a dream is ascribed meaning may
vary according to the beliefs of the dreamer. Thus, Studies 4–6
were designed to examine in greater depth whether dreams are
This possibility was first tested in the domain of social relation-
ships, as emotional dreams about friends and loved ones are
particularly frequent (McNamara, McLaren, Smith, Brown, &
Stickgold, 2005). In Study 4, participants recalled a real dream that
involved another person. We assessed the extent to which the
correspondence between the positivity of dream content and atti-
tudes toward those people influenced the meaning participants
attributed to their dreams. We expected that participants who
reported dreams involving a liked person would evaluate dreams
containing positive content to be more meaningful than dreams
containing negative content, whereas participants who reported
dreams involving a disliked person would rate dreams containing
positive content to be less meaningful than dreams containing
negative content. In Study 5, we held the positivity toward the
person who appeared in dreams constant by asking all participants
to imagine they dreamt about a randomly selected friend but varied
the positivity of the dream imagined. In addition to assessing the
meaning ascribed to those dreams, we also assessed whether the
meaning ascribed to those dreams impacted the strength of their
Finally, we examined the influence of important general beliefs
and the desirability of dream content on dream interpretation by
exploring how religious believers and skeptics differed in their
interpretations of dreams containing divine communications. In
Study 6, participants assessed the meaningfulness of a dream in
which God commanded them to engage in hedonistic or self-
abnegating behavior. We predicted that religious believers would
be motivated to consider all such otherworldly dreams as mean-
ingful irrespective of the desirability of the commandment,
whereas skeptics might be motivated to consider otherworldly
dreams meaningful only when the commandment reflected their
A representative national sample of two hundred seventy Amer-
icans (144 men; M
⫽44.2, SD ⫽14.1) completed a short
Internet survey. Participants were randomly selected from a data-
base of 2.5 million respondents with parameters ensuring that the
sample reflected the gender, age, education level, and income
distribution reported by the most recent (2000) U.S. Census. The
sample included citizens from all 50 states and the District of
After completing an unrelated survey, participants were asked to
think of a dream about a person they knew that they could clearly
recall and to briefly describe its content. Participants then rated the
extent to which they considered that dream to be meaningful, to
provide insight into their relationship with that person, and to be
pleasant on 5-point scales where 1 ⫽not at all,slightly,2⫽
slightly,3⫽somewhat,4⫽moderately, and 5 ⫽extremely.
Participants then reported the extent to which they liked or disliked
the person who appeared in their dream on a 7-point scale ranging
from 1 (dislike extremely)to7(like extremely).
We predicted that participants would exhibit a motivated inter-
pretation of their dreams, ascribing more importance to pleasant
dreams about liked individuals than disliked individuals, and as-
cribing more importance to unpleasant dreams about disliked
individuals than liked individuals. As the meaningfulness and
insight ascribed to dreams was highly correlated, r(268) ⫽.81,
p⬍.001, those reports were averaged into a single measure of the
importance attributed to the dream.
We then analyzed participants’ reports of importance with re-
gression by using centered values for the predictors (liking for the
person in the dream and the pleasantness of the dream), which
yielded a significant linear fit (R
⫽.13), F(3, 266) ⫽13.14, p⬍
.001. Importance ascribed to dreams varied according to the extent
to which participants liked the person who appeared in the dream
(␤⫽.24), t(268) ⫽3.52, p⫽.001, such that dreams about liked
individuals were seen as more meaningful than dreams about
disliked individuals, but overall importance did not vary according
to the pleasantness of the dream (␤⫽.01), t(268) ⫽.10, p⫽.92.
More important, the model revealed that the importance ascribed
to dreams varied according to the predicted interaction of liking
and pleasantness (␤⫽.28), t(268) ⫽2.52, p⫽.01. To clarify the
nature of the interaction, we calculated the simple slopes for
dreams with pleasant and unpleasant content (i.e., one standard
deviation above and below the mean of pleasantness). As illus-
trated by Figure 4, greater meaning was ascribed to pleasant
dreams about liked individuals than disliked individuals (␤⫽.33),
Figure 4. Participants ascribed more importance to pleasant than to
unpleasant dreams that they recalled about liked individuals, and more
importance to unpleasant than to pleasant dreams that they recalled about
disliked individuals (Study 4).
256 MOREWEDGE AND NORTON
t(267) ⫽7.09, p⬍.001, whereas equal meaning was ascribed to
unpleasant dreams about liked individuals and disliked individuals
(␤⫽.04), t(267) ⫽.29, ns. These results suggest a motivated
interpretation of dreams: Participants ascribed more importance to
pleasant dreams about liked individuals than to unpleasant dreams
about liked individuals but relatively more importance to unpleas-
ant dreams about disliked individuals than to pleasant dreams
about disliked individuals.
Although participants appeared to interpret the dreams they
recalled in accordance with their beliefs about the individuals who
appeared in them, it is possible that participants instead recalled
dreams in accordance with their beliefs about the individual that
first came to mind (Conway & Ross, 1984; Sanitioso, Kunda, &
Fong, 1990). To address the possibility that rather than exhibiting
a motivated interpretation of dreams, participants exhibited a mo-
tivated recollection of dreams, we conducted an ancillary posttest
in which participants were asked to recall the most recent dream
they could clearly remember, indicate when that dream occurred,
and rate the valence of that dream. We tested for the presence of
motivated recollection in two ways. First, if people routinely
engage in a motivated recollection of dreams, then it could be
expected that the overall valence of the dreams they remembered
would be positive, rather than neutral or negative. Second, if
motivated recollection unfolds over time, then negative dreams
should be less likely to be remembered than positive dreams as
time passes, suggesting that the valence of dreams and the amount
of time between their recollection and occurrence should be pos-
We conducted the posttest among a representative national
sample of 309 Americans (174 women; M
⫽42.6, SD ⫽17.6)
who were randomly drawn from the database described in Study 4.
Participants were first asked whether they could clearly recall a
dream from the previous evening. Participants who could recall
a dream from the previous evening were then asked to describe
that dream. Participants who could not recall a dream from the
previous evening were asked to report the date of the most recent
dream they could clearly recall and then describe that dream. Each
participant then rated the pleasantness of their dream on a 7-point
scale ranging from 1 (extremely unpleasant)to7(extremely pleasant).
We first tested for the overall valence of the dreams people
recalled to see whether the valence of the dreams participants
recalled was skewed positive. The mean pleasantness rating of the
dreams participants reported (M⫽4.05, SD ⫽1.63) was remark-
ably close to the scale midpoint (4) and did not differ from it,
t(308) ⫽0.52, p⫽.60, suggesting that participants tended to recall
dreams that were neither uniformly positive nor uniformly nega-
tive. Indeed, if any bias was present, then it would be in the
opposite direction, as the dreams participants reported had a slight
negative skew (skewness ⫽⫺.12; SD ⫽0.14). Second, we ex-
plored whether negative dreams were more likely to be forgotten
over time than positive dreams by examining the relationship
between the reported pleasantness of the dreams reported and their
recency (in days). Again, we found no evidence for motivated
recollection, as there was no relationship between these two mea-
sures, r(307) ⫽⫺.04, p⫽.45.
Two trained coders assessed each dream report on the extent to
which its content was mundane or extraordinary, vague or vivid,
appeared to indicate a recurring dream, did or did not appear to be
related to the current concerns of the dreamer, and featured moral
or immoral behavior, all on 7-point scales ranging from 1 (defi-
nitely vague)to7(definitely vivid). Coder agreement was suffi-
ciently high, r(307)
⫽.73, p⬍.001, range ⫽.65–.84. As
with the above analyses for valence, an examination of these five
dimensions revealed little impact of dream recency: Older dreams
were seen as less mundane than newer dreams, r(307) ⫽.12, p⬍
.05, and newer dreams were (not significantly) more likely to
reflect current concerns, r(307) ⫽⫺.08, p⫽.15, but none of the
other dimensions exhibited any relationship with dream recency
(all ps ⬎.44).
Results from Study 4 and the posttest suggest a motivated
component to the interpretation of dreams that cannot be attributed
solely to biases in recollection. Participants attributed meaning to
dreams when dream content corresponded with their preexisting
beliefs about people in their lives: Dreams about friends were
deemed meaningful when those dreams reflected positively upon
friends and were deemed less meaningful when they did not,
whereas dreams about disliked individuals demonstrated the op-
posite pattern. Despite a lack of evidence for motivated recollec-
tion in the posttest data, it is of course possible that participants in
Study 4 were more likely to recall meaningful dreams in accor-
dance with their attitudes toward their acquaintances rather than in
opposition to those attitudes. To ensure there was no possibility for
participants to selectively recall the dreams they evaluated in
subsequent studies, participants evaluated the extent to which they
considered hypothetical dreams to be meaningful in Studies 5 and 6.
In Study 5, each participant named a friend and then was
randomly assigned to consider a pleasant, neutral, or unpleasant
dream featuring the friend they named. This method was chosen
because unpleasant dreams disconfirming preexisting (positive)
attitudes toward a friend serve as an interesting case in which to
compare perceivers’ tendency to believe that dreams contain
meaningful information (exhibited in Studies 1, 2, and 3) with
perceivers’ tendency to protect their beliefs and attitudes by dis-
counting the importance of contradictory information (exhibited in
Study 4). We predicted that motivated reasoning processes would
determine the extent to which individuals engaged in correction
processes, discounting the meaningfulness of negative dreams
about friends relative to the meaning they attributed to neutral and
positive dreams about those friends. Additionally, we explored the
impact of participants’ interpretations on their attitudes. Whereas
Studies 2 and 3 demonstrated that dream interpretations impacted
people’s attitudes toward flying, we expected dream interpreta-
tions in Study 5 to impact people’s perceptions of the strength of
One hundred thirty-five pedestrians in Cambridge (76 women;
⫽29.4, SD ⫽15.4) volunteered to participate.
THE (MOTIVATED) INTERPRETATION OF DREAMS
In a between-subjects design, participants first wrote the initials
of a same-sex friend on one side of a sheet of paper. After turning
the page, participants were randomly assigned to imagine that the
previous night they dreamt either about their friend (controls), that
their friend kissed the participant’s present/most recent significant
other in an intimate way (cheaters), or that their friend defended
the participant from someone trying to hurt them (defenders).
Participants then rated the extent to which they thought the dream
was meaningful and (our measure of the impact of dreams on
attitudes) how close they felt to that friend on 7-point scales
ranging from 1 (definitely purely coincidental/ not at all close)to
7(definitely meaningful/very close).
As in the previous study, the extent to which dreams matched
individuals’ existing beliefs impacted the meaning attributed to
those dreams, F(2, 126) ⫽19.47, p⫽.005,
with cheating dream friends reported that dream to be less mean-
ingful (M⫽3.2, SD ⫽1.8) than did participants with defending
dream friends (M⫽4.4, SD ⫽1.9) and controls (M⫽4.1, SD ⫽
1.9), F(1, 126) ⫽9.81, p⬍.01, r⫽.31; and, F(1, 126) ⫽6.00,
p⬍.03, r⫽.24, respectively. Participants with defending dream
friends and controls did not differ with regard to the meaning they
attributed to the dream considered (F⬍1).
Most important, the randomly assigned dreams differently im-
pacted participants’ feelings of closeness to their friends, F(2,
126) ⫽7.41, p⫽.03,
⫽.05. Participants reported greater
affection for defending dream friends (M⫽6.0, SD ⫽1.2) than
both controls (M⫽5.4, SD ⫽1.5), F(1, 126) ⫽7.10, p⬍.01, r⫽
.22, and cheating dream friends (M⫽5.3, SD ⫽1.8), F(1, 126) ⫽
10.13, p⬍.005, r⫽.22. Controls did not differ from cheating
dream friends with regard to the closeness they reported (F⬍1).
Finally, we checked to see whether participants’ interpretations
of their dreams—the meaningfulness ascribed—determined the
influence of dreams on their feelings of closeness for their friends.
Condition, meaning, and closeness were significantly related (see
Figure 5), and a Sobel test confirmed that the meaning participants
assigned to the dream mediated the impact of the type of dream on
participants’ feelings of closeness to their friend (Z⫽2.36, p⫽
.02; Baron & Kenny, 1986).
As with real dreams recalled from memory in Study 4, partici-
pants in this experiment engaged in motivated interpretations when
ascribing meaning to dreams involving their friends. Participants
believed that neutral dreams were as meaningful as positive
dreams but that negative dreams were less meaningful, demon-
strating both a general tendency to see meaning in dreams and a
discounting of the importance of dreams with undesirable impli-
cations. Most surprising, participants’ perceptions of the strength
of their friendships were influenced by their dream interpretations,
even though the dreams participants considered were hypothetical
and randomly assigned. Indeed, the greater closeness participants
reported feeling to friends who treated them well in a dream than
to friends in the control condition or in the condition in which their
friends treated them badly was mediated by the greater meaning
attributed to dreams with attitude-consistent content. It thus ap-
pears that perceivers ascribe truth value to dreams and are affected
by dream content but discount the meaningfulness of dreams with
content that conflicts with their beliefs and desires while awake.
Study 1 demonstrated that people from divergent cultures en-
dorse the Freudian view of dreams as containing hidden meaning.
Clearly not all people do, however, as the second most frequently
endorsed theory in Study 1 was the Freudian theory’s antithesis—
that dreams are the by-product of random neural impulses (Hobson
& McCarley, 1977; Muzur et al., 2002). Given our evidence
suggesting dream interpretations are influenced by perceivers’
motivations in Studies 4 and 5, we wanted to test whether per-
ceivers who would normally profess disbelief in the truth of a
dream might be persuaded to consider it meaningful if their mo-
tivation to believe it was sufficiently high. In Study 6, religious
believers and agnostics imagined that God spoke to them in a
dream and commanded them to do something they would enjoy
(i.e., world travel) or dislike (i.e., self-sacrifice). We expected
religious believers to endorse both dreams, irrespective of the
commandment’s desirability, as their beliefs suggest that both
pleasant and unpleasant commands from God are important and
sacred (Baumeister, 2002; Festinger, Riecken, & Schachter, 1956).
More interesting, we expected agnostics—people who do not fully
believe in God but are not quite willing to completely rule out the
existence of one—to find greater truth in God’s words when God
commanded them to engage in world travel than when God com-
manded them to engage in self-sacrifice, as they should engage in
more correction when determining the importance of a dream that
both contradicted their doubt in the existence of God and had
Figure 5. Interpretations of the meaningfulness of dreams mediate the influence of dream content on the
closeness felt toward a friend (Study 5).
258 MOREWEDGE AND NORTON
To ensure that dreams advocating world travel or self-sacrifice
were considered pleasant and unpleasant, undergraduate students
in a pretest, using a within-subject design (N⫽20; 6 women;
⫽19.62, SD ⫽1.24), rated the desirability of taking a year
off from their studies to travel the world and the desirability of
taking a year off from their studies to work in a leper colony on
7-point scales ranging from 1 (extremely undesirable)to7(ex-
tremely desirable). As expected, students considered taking a year
off to travel (M⫽6.25, SD ⫽1.16) more desirable than taking a
year off to work in a leper colony (M⫽2.15, SD ⫽1.56), t(19) ⫽
11.81, p⬍.001, r⫽.94.
Sixty undergraduate students enrolled in a psychology course at
Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey (37 women)
participated as part of a course requirement.
Participants first reported the extent to which they believed in
the existence of God on a 5-point scale ranging from 1 (I definitely
do not believe that God exists)to5(I definitely believe God exists).
Participants were divided into believers, who reported definitely
believing (5) in the existence of God on this measure (n⫽35), and
agnostics, who reported doubting (1–4) the existence of God (n⫽
25). In a between-subjects design, participants were then asked to
imagine that God spoke to them in a dream during the previous
evening and informed them to take a year off from their studies to
either “travel the world” or “work in a leper colony.” Participants
reported the extent to which they considered the dream to be
meaningful on a 7-point scale ranging from 1 (definitely purely
Not surprisingly, believers rated dreams in which God spoke to
them as more meaningful than did agnostics, F(1, 56) ⫽15.70,
⫽.22. However, this main effect was qualified by the
more interesting predicted interaction, F(1, 56) ⫽4.40, p⬍.05,
⫽.07. Whereas believers felt both dreams were equally meaning-
ful irrespective of the desirability of the dreams’ content (F⬍1),
agnostics reported that dreams were more meaningful when God
suggested that they should take a year off to travel the world than
when God suggested they should take a year off to work in a leper
colony, F(1, 56) ⫽6.19, p⬍.05, r⫽.42 (see Figure 6).
These results again suggest that perceivers use motivated inter-
pretations of dream content, as their preexisting religious beliefs
and secular desires moderated the meaning they ascribed to
dreams: Dreams about communications from God were deemed
more meaningful by believers than by agnostics. Agnostics, how-
ever, were influenced by the extent to which dreams matched their
secular desires, finding greater truth in God’s commandments
when those commandments entailed world travel rather than self-
sacrifice. In other words, when dreams reinforced and reflected
(religious) beliefs that were important to perceivers, those dreams
were considered to be meaningful regardless of the desirability of
the dream content. When dreams did not reinforce or reflect beliefs
that were important to perceivers, those dreams were considered to
be less meaningful, particularly when the dream content conflicted
with perceivers’ preexisting worldly desires.
Across a series of studies using common dream motifs such as
infidelity, accidents, and messages from deities, participants
treated dreams as meaningful sources of information. A majority
of participants across three cultures believed that dreams were
meaningful sources of information (Study 1), and participants in
two experiments (Studies 2 and 3) believed a dream to be a more
important source of information than a similar conscious thought.
The importance attributed to dreams is evidenced in part by the
motivated interpretation of dreams—if individuals do not treat
dreams as important sources of information, then it is unlikely that
they would have corrected for dream content that conflicted with
their beliefs or contained undesirable information. Rather, greater
importance was attributed to dreams when dream content sup-
ported or confirmed participants’ religious beliefs, secular atti-
tudes, and desires, whether dreams were real (Study 4) or hypo-
thetical (Studies 5 and 6). Furthermore, the importance attributed
to dreams influenced personal relationships (Study 5) and was
sufficient to impact behavioral intentions to travel (Studies 2 and
3). It thus appears that dreaming is believing—individuals from
different cultures believe that dreams provide meaningful insight
into the self and the world—but not all dreams hold similar insight
and meaning. Individuals take a motivated approach to dream
interpretation: Dreams incongruous with existing beliefs and de-
sires are less likely to be endorsed and influence diurnal life.
We did not divide participants into believers (5), agnostics (4–2), and
atheists (1) because there were only 2 atheists in our sample. With these 2
participants removed, the main effect of belief and the interaction remain
significant, F(1, 54) ⫽17.52, p⬍.001,
⫽.25; and, F(1, 54) ⫽5.57,
Figure 6. The meaning attributed to dreams containing commands from
God is moderated by the religious beliefs and secular desires of the
dreamer (Study 6). Bars represent ⫾1 standard error.
THE (MOTIVATED) INTERPRETATION OF DREAMS
Curiously, although participants in our studies engaged in mo-
tivated dream interpretation, they still ascribed importance to very
negative dreams that conflicted with basic motivations such as
self-preservation (i.e., dreams of a plane crash before traveling).
As we suggested earlier, the ascription of meaning to dreams with
such undesirable content may simply attest to the potency of
information contained in dreams relative to the same information
contained in conscious thoughts. It is possible, however, that
particular kinds of dreams are especially likely to be considered
meaningful, such as dreams that evoke thoughts of death and
injury (Solomon, Greenberg, & Pyszczynski, 1991), whereas rel-
atively less important negative dreams might be somewhat easier
to dismiss (e.g., dreams of a friend’s regrettable behavior). Future
research is certainly needed to elucidate fully how the interplay
between beliefs and the desirability of the content of dreams
affects their perceived importance, and whether particular kinds of
dream content are attributed special meaning.
More generally, we have focused our investigation on the dis-
tinction between thoughts that occur while awake and while
asleep, in part, because lay intuitions about the power of dreams
are strongly and consensually held. Yet thoughts that occur during
dreams and while awake clearly lie on a continuum of thought
interpretation. For example, the very same waking thought might
be ascribed greater meaning if it appears to have been generated
for entirely internal reasons than if it appears to have occurred
because of exposure to some external stimulus. We would expect
thoughts that appear to be the product of mind wandering (i.e.,
“day dreaming”) to be accorded more meaning by the thinker than
thoughts that appear to be the product of deliberate attention, and
having suddenly found the solution to a problem may lead solvers
to consider their solutions more creative and important than if the
same solution was discovered after they engaged in effortful
Examining the interpretation of thought with this framework
may have implications not just for understanding “normal” thought
but for disordered thought as well. We have focused on fairly
innocuous consequences of attributing meaning to the sometimes
random thoughts that occur in dreams (Hobson & McCarley, 1977;
Muzur et al., 2002), yet many psychopathologies have at their core
the notion that people overattribute meaning to their thoughts. For
instance, failing to attribute others’ mildly intrusive questions to
their genuine concern might result in one considering a fleeting
paranoid thought that others are spying on one to hold meaning
and reflect a veridical state of the world.
When the system that
interprets thoughts goes awry, misinterpretation of thoughts may thus
have negative consequences for the thinker. The attributional pro-
cesses underlying the interpretation of dreams that we have identified
may thus be applicable to a wide spectrum of research exploring the
antecedents and consequences of thought interpretation.
Which Dreams Are Interpreted?
Our experiments demonstrate that people exhibit a general be-
lief that dreams hold hidden meaning and therefore have a general
tendency to interpret their dreams and allow those dreams to
impact their judgment and behavior. As our cross-cultural data
indicates, this tendency appears widespread. Indeed, although most
commonly associated in Western culture with theorists such as
Freud and Jung, the presence of dream interpretation in ancient
religious and mythological texts (Hard, 2004)—as illustrated by
our opening quote from the Talmud—suggests that the tendency to
interpret dreams has been prevalent since antiquity.
Does this ubiquitous tendency imply, however, that all dreams
are interpreted? Many of our studies featured commonplace situ-
ations and dream motifs—from interactions with friends to plane
crashes—precisely the kinds of dreams that would appear to have
the most relevance to one’s life (and thus be least likely to be
dismissed). At the same time, however, people seemed willing to
lend some weight to dreams about commandments from God,
hardly a commonplace occurrence. Although future research is
needed to explore the boundaries of dream interpretation, some
existing research suggests that its latitude might be quite wide.
First, even when events in the world are explicitly and undeniably
random (as many dreams certainly seem to be; Hobson & McCar-
ley, 1977; Muzur et al., 2002), people seek to explain those events
in an effort to control and predict them (Langer, 1975; Pronin,
Wegner, McCarthy, & Rodriguez, 2006; Skinner, 1948; Wright,
1962). Second, returning to our earlier discussion of correction
processes, even blatantly implausible and obviously false informa-
tion can exert an impact on judgment: Participants who answer no
to the question of whether Gandhi lived to be more than 1,000,000
years old (Mussweiler & Strack, 2000) surely realize the outland-
ishness of this anchor, yet that information still biases their sub-
sequent judgments. Even when people are informed that feedback
they received about their abilities was randomly assigned, their
judgments of their past and future performance are still influenced
by that false information, again suggesting a lack of sufficient
correction for information known to be untrue (Ross, Lepper, &
Can images and thoughts in dreams become too bizarre to
impact judgment? We suggest that in particularly strange cases,
people may realize that the actual event is unlikely to happen, but
their desire to interpret dreams leads them to perceive meaning
nonetheless. Indeed, the industry of dream interpretation is reliant
on people’s desire for even the most fantastical dreams to be
interpreted. For instance, a dream about flying through the air
under one’s own power is very unlikely to indicate that one will
actually become capable of flight, yet a quick search of the Internet
reveals countless interpretations of this motif. Freud (1900/1953)
himself suggested that dreams of flying revealed thoughts of
sexual desire. Interestingly, in the same text, Freud also suggested
that dreams about the absence of the ability to fly (i.e., falling) also
indicate succumbing to sexual desire. It is thus possible that even
when outrageous thoughts arise in dreams, those thoughts may still
be likely to be seen as sources of meaningful information rather
than as random by-products of a restless mind’s frequent wander-
ings (Mason et al., 2007; Smallwood & Schooler, 2006), and
whatever interpretation one places (or one’s psychoanalyst places)
on that dream then influences subsequent judgment and behavior.
Might Dreams Provide Insight Into Ourselves
and the World?
We have suggested that dreams are more impactful than similar
waking thoughts because they lack a clear external cause and
We thank an anonymous reviewer for this suggestion.
260 MOREWEDGE AND NORTON
therefore seem to “come from nowhere.” To be fair, we have
focused our attention on cases in which people’s beliefs that
dreams provide hidden clues cause them to use such information in
suspect ways, as when using dreams of plane crashes as a useful input
to their future travel plans. Dreams certainly can provide insight into
the state of the dreamer. We suggest, however, that this insight is of
a different sort than that which laypeople believe dreams provide.
For example, nightmares are more likely to occur when people are
under emotional stress (Levin & Nielsen, 2007); a study conducted
in the wake of the 1989 San Francisco earthquake found that the
frequency of nightmares among local college students was pre-
dicted by their proximity to the earthquake’s epicenter (Wood,
Bootzin, Rosenhan, Nolen-Hoeksema, & Jurden, 1992). More
generally, the content of dreams often reflects people’s current
concerns—their worries and fears about their jobs, marriages, and
children (Nikles, Brecht, Klinger, & Bursell, 1998). If a person
were to describe the content of her or his dreams to a therapist or
friend, then it is thus very likely that those dreams would provide
insight into the dreamer. If she or he were to speak about experi-
encing frequent nightmares, for example, then it might be wise to
treat their occurrence as meaningful and inquire about sources of
stress. What is much less likely, however, is that dreams provide
hidden insights into future world events. Horrible dreams about
plane crashes might be evidence that someone is anxious about a
meeting they are scheduled to attend, but such dreams are certainly
not evidence that a plane crash is imminent.
Still, though the lay belief that dreams contain hidden insight
and foreshadow events to come seems dubious at best, there are at
least two plausible reasons to believe that dreams may provide
insight into the present and future. First, given laypeople’s strong
endorsement of the Freudian perspective and their willingness to
use dreams to guide behavior, dreams may create self-fulfilling
prophecies (Merton, 1948): Dreams of spousal infidelity may lead
to suspicious accusations, alienating one’s spouse and potentially
provoking actual infidelity. Second, merely thinking of an action
may make one more likely to later perform the action considered
(Gollwitzer, 1999; Greenwald, Carnot, Beach, & Young, 1987;
Levav & Fitzsimons, 2006). Asking people whether they intend to
purchase a car or computer in the near future, for example, in-
creases the likelihood of that item being purchased (Morwitz,
Johnson, & Schmittlein, 1993). Having dreamt of an event may
thus make one more likely to consider and engage in that behavior.
While we cannot be sure, the effects of either of these processes
may be responsible for participants’ reports that their dreams had
come true in the survey ancillary to Study 2.
We close by noting that, although dreams are unlikely to predict
future world events, it is possible that they may provide some
hidden insight into diurnal life in the way that laypeople believe
they do. Just as unconscious thought can provide insight that is
superior to more deliberative forms of thinking when making
decisions (Dijksterhuis, Bos, Nordgren, & van Baaren, 2006; Di-
jksterhuis & van Olden, 2006; Wilson & Schooler, 1991), gener-
ating creative solutions (Dijksterhuis & Meurs, 2006), recalling
directions (Fiore & Schooler, 2002), and solving puzzles (Lane &
Schooler, 2004), dreams may integrate seemingly unrelated evi-
dence—unexplained credit card charges, smudges of lipstick, dis-
tant behavior—into a correct diagnosis of infidelity. Although
future research is needed to explore this possibility, if sleep lends
insight into solving abstract problems (Stickgold & Walker, 2004;
Wagner et al., 2004), perhaps sleep and dreaming provide insight
into the concrete problem of making sense of ourselves as well.
Because people’s interpretations of their dreams appear to be moti-
vated, the content of those dreams may hold meaning that they are not
willing to acknowledge despite their general belief in the power of their
dreams (Brown & Donderi, 1986; Cann & Donderi, 1986; Domino, 1976).
To the extent that dreams do contain insight, dreamers may thus be
particularly poorly suited to interpret those dreams themselves, whereas a
more impartial evaluator, such as a psychoanalyst, may actually be more
accurate than dreamers at dream interpretation.
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THE (MOTIVATED) INTERPRETATION OF DREAMS
“Emotions buried in the unconscious surface in disguised form
during dreaming, and the remembered fragments of dreams can
help uncover the buried feelings.”
“Dreams are used to sort out information that is useful for our
immediate survival. As such, our dreams can give us useful in-
sights into how to solve problems.”
“Dreams are the brain sorting through the day’s information and
are used to ‘throw out’ the unwanted information to prevent the
information from becoming jumbled.”
“Dreams are when the brain tries to interpret random impulses
from the pons as sensory input, producing the vivid hallucinations
we know as dreams.”
Received February 7, 2007
Revision received June 3, 2008
Accepted June 25, 2008 䡲
New Editors Appointed, 2010–2015
The Publications and Communications Board of the American Psychological Association an-
nounces the appointment of 4 new editors for 6-year terms beginning in 2010. As of January 1,
2009, manuscripts should be directed as follows:
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partment of Educational Psychology, Texas A&M University, 704 Harrington Education
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Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Grady Health System, 80 Jesse Hill Jr.
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journals/xan), Anthony Dickinson, PhD, Department of Experimental Psychology, University
of Cambridge, Downing Street, Cambridge CB2 3EB, United Kingdom
●Journal of Personality and Social Psychology: Personality Processes and Individual Differ-
ences (http://www.apa.org/journals/psp), Laura A. King, PhD, Department of Psychological
Sciences, University of Missouri, McAlester Hall, Columbia, MO 65211.
Electronic manuscript submission: As of January 1, 2009, manuscripts should be submitted
electronically via the journal’s Manuscript Submission Portal (see the website listed above with
each journal title).
Manuscript submission patterns make the precise date of completion of the 2009 volumes
uncertain. Current editors, Milton E. Strauss, PhD, Anne E. Kazak, PhD, Nicholas Mackintosh,
PhD, and Charles S. Carver, PhD, will receive and consider manuscripts through December 31,
2008. Should 2009 volumes be completed before that date, manuscripts will be redirected to the new
editors for consideration in 2010 volumes.
264 MOREWEDGE AND NORTON