Aggression in nightmares and unpleasant dreams and in people reporting recurrent nightmares

Patrick McNamara, April Minsky, Victoria Pae, Erica Harris, Edward Pace-Schott, Sanford Auerbach

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

18 Scopus citations


We used unique data sets from Dreamboard and SurveyMonkey to test the hypothesis that aggression levels would vary significantly with content of recurrent nightmares, nonrecurrent nightmares, and unpleasant dreams. Exactly 475 nightmares and 433 unpleasant dreams were collected from Dreamboard users, while 135 nightmares were collected from individuals who reported having recurrent nightmares via a SurveyMonkey survey. Results demonstrated that physical aggression and anxiety levels were significantly higher for nightmares from individuals who reported recurrent nightmares relative to nightmares from people not reporting recurrent nightmares who in turn reported nightmares, which evidenced higher physical aggression levels relative to unpleasant dreams. Use of personal pronouns, verbs, and social terms were significantly reduced in recurrent nightmares relative to regular nightmares and unpleasant dreams. Aggressors were most often supernatural agents in recurrent nightmares; unfamiliar males in regular nightmares and familiar males in unpleasant dreams. Physical aggression against the dreamer was the most common theme in nightmares while interpersonal conflict was the most common theme in unpleasant dreams. Nightmares associated with awakenings evidenced significantly higher levels of aggression relative to nightmares not associated with awakenings. People with recurrent nightmares were 3 times more likely to report a relative on their maternal side with recurrent nightmares. We conclude that levels of physical aggression within the dream and targeted against the dreamer distinguishes recurrent from nonrecurrent nightmares and unpleasant dreams.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)190-205
Number of pages16
Issue number3
StatePublished - Sep 1 2015
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2015 American Psychological Association.


  • Aggression
  • Content analysis
  • Dreams
  • Nightmares
  • Sex differences


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