The Good That Comes From Bad Dreams (2020-2021)


Over the past few months, researchers have observed a surge of reports of vivid, negative dreams about COVID-19. At first blush, this recent uptick in negative dreams is perhaps disheartening since we know that negative dreams can lead to negative emotions in waking life. However, research suggests that negative dreams can have positive effects.

For instance, in one study, people reported that their negative dreams helped them resolve at least one personal problem (within a two-week period) and triggered action in waking life. Moreover, although negative dream content is linked to negative mood the following morning, research has shown that negative mood can facilitate prosocial behavior. For example, induced negative emotion increases fair play among individuals in a cooperation game and increases value representation for others.

Critically, these results suggest that negative COVID-19 dreams may motivate prosocial behaviors that conform to public health mandates (e.g., stress induced by dreaming about leaving home without a face mask may make it more likely that you’ll remember the face mask). Consistent with this prediction, results of a pilot study show that people reporting a higher frequency of negative COVID-19 dreams tend to report increased intentions to engage in social-distancing and risk-avoidant behaviors.

While these pilot results are promising, it is unknown whether there is a causal link between COVID-19 dreams and prosocial behaviors.

Project Description

This project team will test the hypothesis that inducing dream content related to COVID-19 motivates prosocial behavior to a greater extent than positive or neutral dream content. To do this, team members will recruit participants for a three-week study of dreaming and prosocial behavior. The team will screen patients on two criteria: strong tendencies to absorption and moderate to low levels of COVID-19 affectedness.

Patients will be randomly assigned to one of three groups and receive a different curated news story nightly via email to prime different concerns. Group 1 will receive stories about negative aspects of COVID-19; Group 2 will receive stories about negative events unrelated to COVID-19; and Group 3 will receive stories on trivia.

Patients will complete two surveys each day. In the morning, patients will provide short descriptions of dream content and report on dream lucidity and valence, and in the evening, they will report on current mood, anxiety, stress and prosocial behaviors for the day.

Team leaders predict that patients in Group 1 will have more COVID-19-related dreams and greater reported prosocial behavior relative to other groups, and that patients in Group 1 will donate more money to charity relative to other groups.

Anticipated Outputs

Publications; reports; grant submissions


Fall 2020 – Spring 2021

  • Fall 2020: Design survey materials; recruit and screen patients; run study
  • Spring 2021: Analyze data; prepare and submit manuscript; prepare and submit results to popular news outlets

Team Leaders

  • Nicholaus Brosowsky, Arts & Sciences-Psychology and Neuroscience
  • Samuel Murray, Arts & Sciences-Psychology and Neuroscience
  • Paul Seli, Arts & Sciences-Psychology and Neuroscience

/undergraduate Team Members

  • Annika Agrawal
  • Mashal Ali, Neuroscience (AB)
  • Meiru Chen
  • Nikki Daniels
  • Nicole Izquierdo, Psychology (BS)
  • Nathan Liang, Psychology (BS)
  • Muhammad Nadeem, Neuroscience (AB)
  • Elizabeth Rooks, Neuroscience (AB)
  • Akshaj Turebylu

/yfaculty/staff Team Members

  • Dan Ariely, Fuqua School of Business