Dreams as the expression of conceptions and concerns: A comparison of German and American college students

G. William Domhoff

University of California, Santa Cruz

Katrin Meyer-Gomes

University of California, San Diego

Michael Schredl

Central Institute of Mental Health, Germany

NOTE: If you use this paper in research, please use the following citation, as this on-line version is simply a reprint of the original article:
Domhoff, G. W., Meyer-Gomes, K., & Schredl, M. (2006). Dreams as the expression of conceptions and concerns: A comparison of German and American college students. Imagination, Cognition and Personality, 25(3), 269-282.


Past research shows there are more similarities than differences in the dream content of college students in several industrialized democracies. This study uses new results from dreams collected in Germany to support this past finding and suggest that dreams are more similar than different because they dramatize people's conceptions and concerns in relation to personal issues, which probably do not vary as much from country to country as culture does. It is further argued that this continuity between dream content and waking concerns, when combined with other parallels between dreaming and waking cognition, can be used to develop a cognitive theory of dreams. In addition, suggestions for future research with college students in Germany, the United States, and other countries are presented as a way to link personal conceptions and cultural changes.


The dream reports of American college men and women showed considerable similarity over a 45-year period from the late 1940s to the early 1990s on a variety of Hall and Van de Castle (1966) categories for the coding of dream content (e.g., Domhoff, 1996; Hall, 1951; Hall, Domhoff, Blick, & Weesner, 1982; Tonay, 1990/1991). Moreover, the findings on American college students are in general similar to those for college students in Canada, the Netherlands, Switzerland, India, and Japan, with the important exception of differences in the rate of aggressive interactions and the percentage of total aggressions that are physical in nature (Domhoff, 1996, Chapter 6). Despite the generality of these findings, they have not been a major basis for theorizing about dreams.

Recently, these results have been extended to German men and women, most of whom were college students, based on dream reports collected in the mid-1990s (Schredl, Petra, Bishop, Golitz, & Buschtons, 2003). Using a German translation of the Hall and Van de Castle coding system (Riepl, 1992), Schredl et al. (2003) found many similarities to the Hall and Van de Castle (1966) norms for the United States on a variety of indicators for settings, characters, misfortunes, friendliness, aggression, and sexuality. They also found a few differences, the most notable of which was the absence of the usual gender difference in the percentage of male and female characters (67/33 for men and 48/52 for women) that has been reported in many past studies in several different countries (Domhoff, 1996; Hall, 1984). If their finding on the differences in male/female percentage is accurate, it could represent an interesting national difference or a harbinger of general change on a dimension of dream content that has been stable in Western societies for 45 years.

The purpose of the present article is to verify and extend the Schredl et al. (2003) results and to use them as a starting point for theorizing on the basis of the general findings on college students' dreams. This verification is necessary before theorizing can begin because Schredl et al. (2003, p. 242) express concerns about the reliability of their codings due to the relative inexperience of their coders. In addition, there were minor problems with their sample in terms of making valid comparisons with the American normative sample that will be used for the comparisons made in this article (Hall & Van de Castle, 1966). Only after these problems are resolved will it be possible to argue that the findings lend support to a cognitive theory of dreams that sees dreaming as an expression of conceptions and concerns, especially emotional concerns (Antrobus, 1978, 1991; Foulkes, 1985; Hall, 1953a; Hartmann, 1998). This theory gains further plausibility due to the fact that it is consistent with findings and theories in regard to daydreaming (Klinger, 1990; Singer, 1975) and the stream of everyday waking thought (Klinger, 1999; Singer, 1993).

By looking at the actual content and themes from which the quantitative findings are derived, we suggest that dreams have considerable consistency across time and countries because they express personal interests, worries, and emotional preoccupations about family, friends, social life, recreational interests, and relationships at work, which probably do not vary as much as do the cultures of these various countries. A theoretical emphasis on dreams as a reflection of personal concerns also might explain why the dreams of American college students did not change much over a 45-year period despite the dramatic social and cultural changes in the United States since the 1960s. Moreover, if the dreams of college students may now be changing, as some of the German findings suggest, we think that studies of new samples of dream reports from college students in Germany, the United States, and other countries might provide a way to see if and how cultural changes lead to changes in dream content.

Participants and Methods

The German dream reports used in this study are the same ones used in the Schredl et al. (2003) study. As described in that study, 106 women and 39 men with a mean age of 24 years kept 2-week dream diaries that led to a total of 537 dream reports. The maximum number of dream reports used per participant was five, with the overwhelming majority of participants contributing three or more reports. As in the Hall and Van de Castle (1966) normative study that will be used in the comparison with the German dreams, only dream reports with between 50 and 300 words were included. Due to these word restrictions, their final German sample consisted of 282 reports from women and 101 from men, a difference in sample size between women and men that reflects differences in participation levels by gender also found in American studies (Domhoff, 1996; Tonay, 1990/1991; Winegar & Levin, 1997).

Although we coded all 383 reports in the Schredl et al. (2003) sample in order to compare our findings with theirs, we utilized a more truncated sample for purposes of our comparisons with the American normative sample. There were two reasons for this truncation. First, 33 of the women's dreams and 2 of the men's dreams used by Schredl et al. were eliminated because the dreamers were younger than 18 or older than 39, and therefore not comparable in age to the college students used in other studies, who were generally between 18 and 25. Since pre-college education takes between 12 and 13 years in Germany, depending on the school system, and does not begin until age 6, it is unlikely that anyone under 18 is a college student in Germany. Although there is a tendency in Germany to stay in college for long time periods, and to go back to college at a later age, participants over age 39 seem too removed in age from the American normative sample to make a good comparison possible.

Second, four dreams from one man and one dream from each of three women were removed because they showed several signs that they were fabrications. The man's four dreams were written as if they were episodes in a tragic theatrical drama, using archaic German expressions. The women's three dreams had the quality of fairy tales, which unpublished research has shown to distinguish made-up and actual dream reports provided by college students, such as idyllic settings with no human characters other than the dreamer, or romantic love stories that do not include the dreamer as a character (Domhoff, Dunn, & Meyer-Gomes, 2004). Overall, then, our sample consisted of 246 dream reports from women and 95 from men.

The dream reports were coded three separate times by the second author of this article, a native German speaker who is completely proficient in English due to her schooling in Germany and several years of living in the United States. She first coded the dreams in August 2002, as a way to master the Hall and Van de Castle coding system. The German dream reports were then put aside for 2 months while she coded a large sample of English-language dream reports from American students, which was also being coded by a more experienced coder. She then worked with the more experienced coder to understand and resolve any differences in their codings, which improved her proficiency as a coder. She recoded the German dream reports in October 2002, and then recoded them again a year later, in October 2003, without referring to her previous codings. A comparison of the October 2002, and October 2003, codings provides a good indication of cross-time coder reliability.

The dream reports were coded for characters, aggressions, friendliness, sexuality, misfortunes, striving, and emotions. The inclusion of strivings and emotions means that we can make an extension of the Schredl et al. (2003) findings. As in the Schredl et al. (2003) article, the codings were entered into a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet called DreamSAT, which is available on the Internet at dreamresearch.net (Schneider & Domhoff, 1995). The spreadsheet computes the values for a wide range of Hall and Van de Castle indicators, which are based on percentages and ratios derived from the raw frequencies for the coding categories. It also provides information on significance levels and effect sizes for each indicator (Domhoff, 2003).

The German results were then compared to the Hall and Van de Castle (1966) normative findings. Although these normative dream reports are from the years 1947 to 1950, the findings have been replicated with dream reports from the University of Richmond in 1980 (Hall et al., 1982), the University of California, Berkeley, in 1986 (Tonay, 1990/1991), Salem College in 1987 and 1990 (Dudley & Fungaroli, 1987; Dudley & Swank, 1990), and the University of California, Santa Cruz, in 1992-1993 (Domhoff, 1996). Thus, there is every reason to believe that the dreams of American college students did not change over a 45-year period.

In addition to the Hall and Van de Castle codings, each German dream report was coded for at least one instance of several simple ad hoc categories, which were developed for the purposes of this study in order to determine the degree to which the dreams involve people and activities from everyday life. There were four categories for familiar characters: 1) parents or siblings; 2) spouses, boyfriends, or girlfriends; 3) other family members; and 4) friends. There were five categories for commonplace leisure activities: 1) traveling or vacationing; 2) watching or playing sports; 3) going to parties, cafés, or bars; 4) watching entertainers or shows; and 5) shopping. There also was a single category for involvement in work, school, or politics.


There are no significant differences between the October 2002 and October 2003 codings of the German dream reports by the second author of this article. Thus, the cross-time coder reliability in this study is close to perfect. Moreover, when her codings for all 383 dream reports are compared with those by Schredl et al., there are very few differences, which means that the two studies agree generally about what is similar and what is different in the dream reports of German and American college students. Out of 22 comparisons (11 for each gender), 17 differed by six percentage points or less and one differed by seven percentage points. The other four differences were larger. Our study coded both men and women lower on physical aggression percentage, women higher on the percentage of dreams with at least one misfortune, and men higher on the percentage of dreams with at least one friendliness. In general, however, we think that our cross-time reliability findings and the similarities between our codings and those of Schredl et al. mean that the substantive findings that follow are solid ones. Tables demonstrating these reliability findings are available on request from the corresponding author.

Our first substantive finding, based on our truncated sample of 246 dream reports from women and 95 from men, concerns the gender similarities and differences in the German sample and the American normative sample. Using the effect size statistic h with 17 Hall and Van de Castle indicators, it was found that 11 of the indicators show the same directionality and roughly the same magnitude of gender difference in both countries. (For an explanation of h, see Cohen, 1988, or Domhoff, 1996.) There were also two indicators, befriender percentage and percentage of dreams with at least one striving, on which the same gender differences appear, but with German men having a larger difference on befriender percentage and Americans having a larger gender gap on the percentage of dreams with at least one striving. Finally, there are four indicators for which the gender differences are eliminated or reversed. Two of these changes involve small effect sizes (animal percentage and bodily misfortunes percentage) and one has a medium effect size (dreams with at least one misfortune). Most important for purposes of this article, the largest cross-national difference concerns the male/ female percentage, where the difference commonly found between men and women in American samples is absent in the German sample. The exact figures for these gender comparisons are provided in Table 1.

Table 1. A Comparison of Gender Similarities and Differences for
Germans and Americans Using the h Statistic for Effect Size
(+ signifies men are higher; - signifies women are higher)

Male/Female %-.07+.39large
Friends %-.14-.12none
Family %-.26-.26none
Animal %-.06+.08small
A/F %+.20+.15none
Befriender %+.34+.06large
Aggressor %+.23+.14small
Physical Aggression %+.32+.33none
Self Negativity %+.09+.02none
Bodily Misfortunes %+.03-.12small
Negative Emotions %-.010none
One Aggression+.08+.05none
One Friendliness-.08-.08none
One Sexuality+.12+.31large
One Misfortune-.15+.06medium
One Striving+.02+.21medium
* h differences of .00-.10 = none; .11-.20 = small; .21-.30 = medium; .31+ = large.

Although the gender patterns are generally similar for both countries, this does not necessarily mean that there are no cross-national differences. Cross-national differences in the context of similar gender patterns are possible because the men and women in one country could be higher or lower on an indicator even while retaining the same gender patterns as in the other country. As Table 2 shows, there are in fact six differences between German and American men on the 17 indicators, as well as five differences between the German and American women.

Table 2. A Comparison of German Women with American Women and
German Men with American Men on 17 Hall and Van de Castle Indicators
(German findings in parentheses)

Indicator Womenh Menh
Male/Female % 48 (55)+.15** 67 (52)–.31**
Familiarity 58 (55)–.07     45 (41)–.08    
Friends % 37 (34)–.05     31 (28)–.07    
Family % 19 (20)+.02     12 (11)–.03    
Animal % 04 (05)+.03     06 (04)+.12    
A/F % 51 (52)+.01     59 (61)+.05    
Befriender % 47 (51)+.09     50 (68)+.36*
Aggressor % 33 (35)+.01     40 (46)+.13    
Physical Aggression % 34 (29)–.11     50 (44)–.12    
Self Negativity % 66 (70)+.09     65 (74)+.21*
Bodily Misfortunes % 35 (21)–.31** 29 (22)–.16    
Negative Emotions % 80 (69)–.25** 80 (69)–.27  
At Least One Aggression 44 (52)+.14     47 (56)+.18    
At Least One Friendliness 42 (53)+.22** 38 (49)+.23*
At Least One Sexuality 04 (05)+.08     12 (08)–.11    
At Least One Misfortune 33 (48)+.31** 36 (41)+.10    
At Least One Striving 15 (11)–.11     27 (12)–.40**
* significant at .05 level.   ** significant at the .01 level.

Most critically in terms of the finding about the absence of a difference between men and women on the male/female percentage, German men dream less about men and German women dream more about men than their American counterparts, which means that both genders contribute to the disappearance of the difference on the male/female percentage. Furthermore, German men and women both have lower negative emotions percentages than their American counterparts.

In addition, German men are more likely than American men to befriend other characters and to have a dream with at least one friendly interaction. On the other hand, they are less likely than American men to have a dream with at least one striving attempt, and they are higher on self-negativity percentage, an indicator that reflects the degree to which the dreamers themselves suffer victimization, misfortune, and failure (Domhoff, 2003). Turning to German women, they have a lower bodily misfortunes percentage, a higher percentage of dreams with at least one friendly interaction, and a smaller percentage of dreams with at least one misfortune as compared to American women. The exact figures for these comparisons, along with the effect sizes and p values, can be found in Table 2.

Finally, turning to our ad hoc categories for gauging the degree to which these dream reports involve familiar characters and commonplace activities, the everyday nature of most of these dreams is seen in the fact that 75.2% of the women's dreams and 62.1% of the men's have at least one instance of one of the four categories of familiar characters. Similarly, 42.3% of the women's dreams and 27.4% of the men's have at least one instance from one of the five leisure-time categories. The routine matters of work, school, or politics appear in 20.3% of the women's dreams and 29.5% of the men's dreams. Overall, only 12.6% of the women's dreams and 20.0% of the men's have no instance of any of the above categories. Compared to women, the men's dreams are less likely to have familiar characters and familiar leisure-time activities, and more likely to have instances of school/work/politics. However, the important point for purposes of this article is that only a minority of dreams for either gender involves unknown characters and activities that are out of the ordinary. The specific findings for each category are provided in Table 3.

Table 3. The Percentage of German Women and Men's Dream Reports
with at Least One Instance of Several Ad Hoc Categories

CategoryWomen's reports
Men's reports
Other Family10.24.2
Any Familiar Character75.262.1
Any Leisure Activity42.327.4
Dreams with none of the above12.620


With the exception of our more frequent coding of misfortune in women's dreams and friendliness in men's dreams, and our less frequent coding of physical aggression in the dream reports of both men and women, this study presents very similar findings to those in the Schredl et al. (2003) study. This result, in conjunction with the high cross-time coder reliability in our study, shows once again that high reliability can be achieved with the Hall and Van de Castle (1966) coding system. In the context of the poor reliability of most scales used in the study of dream content, this is a very important conclusion (Domhoff, 1996, 1999).

The considerable similarity in the dream reports of German and American college students revealed in this study, and in studies of dream reports from several other industrialized democracies as well (Domhoff, 1996), raises the question of why these similarities would exist given the cultural differences among the countries and the cultural changes that occurred in the United States after the norms were established using dream reports from the late 1940s and early 1950s. Perhaps the answer can be found by looking at the actual content that stands behind the statistical similarities in settings, characters, social interactions, misfortunes, strivings, and emotions revealed by the Hall and Van de Castle coding system. Thematic studies of American college students' dreams reveal that most of them include family members, friends, love interests, social gatherings, school, sports, entertainment, and, to a lesser extent, work (Foulkes, 1986, 1999; Hall, 1951, 1953b; Snyder, 1970). As shown in Table 3, this finding holds true for the German dreamers as well, which expands this general point to yet another country and a more recent time period, and therefore provides a more solid basis for drawing theoretical conclusions.

Based on these findings, perhaps the most basic inference that can be made about dream content is that much of it tends to revolve around a relative handful of personal concerns, whether of a positive or negative character. These concerns involve people familiar to the dreamer as well as the leisure and work activities of everyday life. This hypothesis is supported by similar findings in studies of individual dream journals in which inferences based on blind analyses were corroborated or disconfirmed by the dreamers themselves (Domhoff, 1996, 2003). Within the context of this emphasis on personal concerns, there are sometimes distortions in settings, sudden scene changes, or unusual aspects to familiar characters, but dreams are in general a reasonable simulation of the dreamer's conception of his or her waking reality (Foulkes, 1982, 1985). In addition, there is also a small subset of highly memorable dreams that sometimes have a strong emotional impact on the dreamer (Bulkeley, 1999; Busink & Kuiken, 1996; Knudson, 2003). These memorable dreams become even more interesting when normative findings on dream content make it easier to determine their frequency and the unique features of their content.

Drawing on both group and individual findings, Hall and Nordby (1972) formulated a "continuity hypothesis" as a basis for further theorizing about dreams. It states that dreams express waking concerns and emotional preoccupations. More theoretically, the comparison of dream content with waking life suggests that dreams express our conceptions of the people and activities that concern us in waking life (Domhoff, 2003; Hall, 1953a), not merely our experiences in waking life. This distinction between conceptions and experiences is a crucial one because Hall and Nordby's evidence and line of reasoning lead to a cognitive theory of dreams, whereas an emphasis on experiences in waking life implies a more environmentalistic or behavioristic theory.

One good example of the difference can be seen in an analysis of a lengthy dream journal in which a man dreamed several times of killing his father and even more often of having sexual relations with many different women. It turned out that these dreams did not reflect his waking experience, but they did express his strong hatred for his father and the sexual desires he felt, but never acted upon, in waking life. Or, to take a more mundane example, a woman who dreamed frequently of traveling to other countries also daydreamed about traveling, but she did not do any traveling (Domhoff, 1996).

The emphasis on the continuity between dream content and waking personal concerns fits with several other findings on the similarities between dreaming and waking cognition. For example, laboratory studies reveal that the speech acts in dreams are as well executed and context-appropriate as in waking life (Foulkes et al., 1993; Meier, 1993). Then, too, the loss of the ability to produce visual dream imagery in some patients studied in the sleep lab is paralleled by their loss of waking visual imagery (Kerr, 1993). More generally, several different types of deficits and excesses of dreaming have waking cognitive parallels in neurological patients who report changes in their dreaming patterns (Solms, 1997). In turn, these neuropsychological findings are consistent with laboratory studies of young children, which suggest that dreaming is a gradual cognitive achievement that depends upon the development of cognitive abilities that are also important in waking life, particularly visuospatial skills (Foulkes, 1982, 1999; Foulkes, Hollifield, Sullivan, Bradley, & Terry, 1990). It is also noteworthy that traces of dreaming are found in 15-20% of waking thought probes when participants are lying quietly in a darkened room, with their waking state monitored by the EEG (Foulkes & Fleisher, 1975; Foulkes & Scott, 1973). Taken together, these several different kinds of findings show that there are more parallels between dreaming and awaking cognition than is usually realized.

The numerous parallels between dreaming and waking cognition lend plausibility to a cognitive theory of dreams based on concepts developed through the study of waking cognition (Antrobus, 1991, 2000; Foulkes, 1985). The emphasis in a cognitive theory is on the fact that thinking, imagining, and dreaming develop as part of a "conceptual system," or system of schemas and scripts, which is the organizational basis for all human knowledge, beliefs, and actions. The use of concepts drawn from studies of waking cognition to understand dreaming gains further support from studies of daydreaming (Klinger, 1990; Singer, 1975) and waking thought flows (Klinger, 1999; Klinger & Cox, 1987-1988; Singer, 1993). Both kinds of studies reveal that waking thought and daydreaming can drift into dreamlike thinking on some occasions, especially when emotional concerns are expressed (Hartmann et al., 2002-2003). Then, too, another study demonstrates the continuity of bizarre elements in the daydreams and dreams of participants with thin boundaries and of less such elements in both the daydreams and dreams of participants with thick boundaries (Kunzendorf, Hartmann, Cohen, & Cutler, 1997).

The emphasis on personal concerns as a key link between waking cognition and dreams also finds experimental support in two different suggestion studies in the sleep laboratory. The first study used tapes of concern-related and non-concern verbal stimuli that were played to seven male undergraduates during REM sleep; it found that concern stimuli were more often incorporated (Hoelscher, Klinger, & Barta, 1981). The second study demonstrated that concern-related suggestions presented to 10 male undergraduates before they went to sleep had more influence on dream content from REM awakenings than other types of pre-sleep suggestions (Nikles, Brecht, Klinger, & Bursell, 1998).

Although the primary emphasis in a cognitive theory of dreams is on conceptions, not experience, such a theory can encompass experiential or cultural changes because they impact upon conceptions as new concerns to be understood and assimilated. Hypothetically, then, the absence of the expected gender difference in the male/female percentage in this sample of German dream reports may reflect a change in traditional gender roles in that country, which would mean that men's and women's conceptions of gender relations also would be in the process of change. Such a possibility would be strengthened if it could be shown that this change is connected to some other cross-national differences that we reported earlier, such as the lower bodily misfortunes percentage for women and the lower percentage of dreams with at least one striving for men. However, we would not want to make anything of these hypothetical linkages without further studies using new and larger sample sizes.

Beyond suggesting that further samples of dreams from German college students might be theoretically productive, the other important point in terms of future research is that the differences between the current German students and past findings with American students make it theoretically relevant to collect new samples of Most Recent Dreams from American college students for the specific purpose of seeing whether the dreams of American college students have changed since the 1980s and early 1990s in ways that make their dream content more similar to that of the German students. Such studies would be especially useful with the male/female percentage because of its stability over several decades. More generally, in-depth studies of large samples of college students' dream reports in several different countries, including samples that are collected every few years in the same universities, might be very helpful in developing a better understanding of how the relationship between cultural change and personal conceptions manifests itself in dreams.

In suggesting that college students could be the focus of research concerned with the development of a cognitive theory of dreams, we are not arguing primarily from their accessibility. Instead, we think that the general similarities of college students' dreams over several decades provide an excellent baseline for future studies, a baseline that is lacking with most groups of people. We also believe that college students have two important cognitive qualities that are a function of their age and situation. First, they are open to sharing their inner experiences because of their own desire for knowledge. Second, they are eager to contribute to the development of knowledge. Both of these qualities make them ideal participants in the kinds of studies that are now needed in the field of dream research if a new cognitive theory is to be developed.


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Winegar, R. K., & Levin, R. (1997). Sex differences in the object representations in the dreams of adolescents. Sex Roles, 36(7-8), 503-516.

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