science of us

People With Psychopathic Personalities Have Pretty Psychopathic Dreams

Photo: Dalina Rahman/EyeEm/Getty Images

The “Dark Triad” of personality is a group of traits (psychopathy, Machiavellianism, and narcissism) thought to come as a sort of sinister package deal: if you have one of these traits, psychologists argue, you’re very likely to have all three. More recently, this theory was expanded upon, with researchers hypothesizing that these along with a number of other “dark” traits (like sadism and egoism) share a “dark core,” which they defined as the general tendency to put oneself first, even (and sometimes deliberately) at the expense of others. (They also called this dark core “the D-factor.”)

Previous research has established that people with Dark Triad personalities live by the so-called “fast life strategy,” an outlook and affect which may include aggression, impulsive behavior, and increased interest in sex. But now, a group of researchers from the University of Liverpool and the University of Turku in Finland have found that these correlations extend to the dream world as well.

While dream content (and interpretation) is a somewhat controversial field, this study (which I’m thrilled to announce is titled “Dark Dreams Are Made of This: Aggressive and Sexual Dream Content and the Dark Triad of Personality”) suggests there may be some overlap between who we are when we’re awake and what we dream about at night.

The authors first tested participants on the degree to which they fulfilled the criteria for the Dark Triad personality, then asked them to rate how often they dreamed of the following between 1 (never) and 5 (once a month or more often): hitting something or someone, killing someone, shooting or remote attacks, being violent or aggressive toward someone, and sexual experiences with a well-known partner, sexual experiences with an acquaintance or an unknown partner, or sexual experiences with several different people. They found that all of the Dark Triad traits had a statistically significant, positive correlation with the frequency of sexual and aggressive dreams — specifically, that psychopathy and Machiavellianism were associated with more frequent aggressive dreams, and that psychopathy and narcissism were associated with more frequent sex dreams.

If you’re doing some concerned dream-replay right now, it’s important to note that the authors characterize their findings as only an “intriguing association” — having aggressive or sexual dreams does not make a person psychopathic, or narcissistic; rather, those people already predisposed to those traits are likely to dream about aggression and sex more frequently. The authors also note that most of their subjects were women, who tend to have fewer aggressive and sexual dreams than men overall. Still, echoing earlier research which suggested that dreams are like rehearsals for real life, the authors write that it’s possible “individuals high in this trait may simulate evolutionarily relevant actions in their dreams.” Practice … makes … perfect? Ahhh.

People With Psychopathic Traits Have Psychopathic Dreams