Political Ideology and Dreams: Republicans have more Nightmares than Democrats

(with apologies to John Henry Fuselli, The Nightmare, 1792) sparker collage 2008

You may have seen the headline a few years ago - "Republicans have more Nightmares than Democrats." The study by Kelly Bulkeley, Ph.D. was presented at the conference of the Association for the Study of Dreams, held at the University of California, Santa Cruz in July of 2001. He didn't set out to study nightmares. His study simply looked at male and female college students who strongly identified themselves as either liberal (left) or conservative (right), and analyzed many different characteristics of their dreams.

Bulkeley collected "recent dream reports" from over 400 college students between 1996 and 2001. The students provided information about their political views as a part of a survey that asked several different questions about political beliefs. Most college students did not identify a strong affiliation with any political ideology, but some did. Bulkeley wanted to study the dreams of equal numbers of male conservatives, female conservatives, male liberals, and female liberals. Only 14 males identified themselves as conservatives, so 14 students from each of the other groups were randomly chosen for the study. Dreams were "coded using the Hall and Van de Castle content analysis categories for characters, social interactions, emotions, settings, misfortunes, and good fortunes." Bulkeley further notes that "each dream was coded by myself and one or two additional researchers who were blind to the political affiliation of the dreamers and the overall purpose of the study."

Here are some of the results that did not make the headlines:
People on the left were more likely to have females as characters in their dreams, while people on the right dreamed twice as much about male characters as about female characters.

People on the left had fewer familiar characters, fewer friends, more family members, and fewer animals; people on the right had more familiar characters, more friends, fewer family members, and more animals.
People on the left were less often the initiator of aggressive interactions in their dreams, and their aggression was less physical in nature; people on the right were more often the aggressors in their dreams, and their aggression was more often physical.

People on the left had a greater number of dreams involving friendliness and good fortune, and fewer dreams involving misfortune; people on the right had a greater number of dreams with misfortunes, and fewer dreams with friendliness and good fortune.

Male rights had the lowest percentage of family members and instances of sexuality, and the highest percentage of animal characters and being the aggressor.

Male lefts had the highest frequency of female characters, and the fewest instances of aggression.

Female lefts had the lowest percentage of being the aggressor in their dreams, and the highest frequency of friendliness and good fortunes.
Female rights had the highest frequency of sexual interactions and physical aggression. (Bulkeley, 2001)

Bulkeley goes on to summarize his results in the following manner:
People on the right had more nightmares and dreams in which they lacked power. They had a greater frequency of lifelike dreams. Female rights were especially anxious about family relationships, and male rights had dreams almost devoid of girlfriends. People on the left had fewer nightmares and more dreams in which they had power. They had a greater frequency of good fortunes and bizarre elements in their dreams. Female lefts had an especially high frequency of good fortunes, and male lefts had an unusually high percentage of female characters. (Bulkeley, 2001)

This is a pilot study that needs to be replicated with a larger sample before we can draw any real conclusions. Bulkeley was constrained by the small number of conservative males in his sample, and he presents his results without the benefit of statistics. He is cautious about trying to explain the results, and he acknowledges that his own political views may color his interpretation. He reports being surprised that party officials felt the need to comment on his study.

Bulkeley speculated on the reasons for his results in his original paper. He offered two very different scenarios that would both account for his data. He speculates that both interpretations probably have some merit.
Scenario I:The dreams of the people on the political right reveal them to be insecure, anxious, conflict-ridden, and emotionally repressed. When they are not terrified of imaginary threats they cling to the comforts of the status quo. They seek a kind of power through their political views that they lack within their deeper selves. By contrast, the dreams of people on the political left show them to be creative, progressive, and imaginative. They are confident in their abilities and willing to think beyond the boundaries of the present to envision new possibilities for the future. (Bulkeley, 2001)

Scenario II:The dreams of people on the political right reveal them to be highly attuned to the actual dangers and threats of the waking world. These people are realistic, grounded, honest about the frailties of human nature in the face of danger, and appreciative of the good things in present-day life. By contrast, the dreams of people on the political left show them to be irrational, naïve, utopian, and deluded by their own fantasies. These people are out of touch with the real world, and they wish for powers they do not have in actuality. (Bulkeley, 2001)

Since the press reported the 'nightmare' portion of the study many different people have reacted to the results. Bulkeley recently reported the following reactions to his study:

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. Terry McAuliffe, Democratic National Committee chairman [left], 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 [right] 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.” (Bulkeley, 2001, personal communication).

It's important that we see this study for what it is - an interesting pilot study that suggests some surprising relationships between political ideology and dreams. It makes some sense to me that the worldviews of conservatives and liberals would result in differences in their dreams. It is also possible that the findings of this study are random occurrences - that these only represent the odd dreams of this particular set of people. Until the appropriate statistics can be used on a larger sample, we can't interpret these results beyond these particular 56 people.

Source: McNulty, Jennifer. "Republicans Nearly Three Times As Likely As Democrats To Have Nightmares, Says Researcher" Association for the Study of Dreams press release, July 2001.
The Nightmare, John Henry Fuseli