Recent research finds that humans from cultures all over the world continue to believe that dreams contain important hidden truths.

“Psychologists’ interpretations of the meaning of dreams vary widely,” says lead author Carey Morewedge, an assistant professor at Carnegie Mellon University. “But our research shows that people believe their dreams provide meaningful insight into themselves and their world.”

One study conducted by Morewedge and his team surveyed 149 university students in the United States, India, and South Korea about general beliefs regarding dreams. Researchers asked the students to rate different theories about dreams. Across all three cultures, an overwhelming majority of the students endorsed the theory that dreams reveal hidden truths about themselves and the world, a belief also endorsed by a nationally representative sample of Americans.

In another study, the researchers wanted to explore how dreams might influence people’s waking behavior. They surveyed 182 commuters at a Boston train station, asking them to imagine that one of four possible scenarios had happened the night before a scheduled airline trip: the national threat level was raised to orange, indicating a high risk of terrorist attack; they consciously thought about their plane crashing; they dreamed about a plane crash; or a real plane crash occurred on the route they planned to take. A dream of a plane crash was more likely to affect travel plans than either thinking about a crash or a government warning, and the dream of a plane crash produced a similar level of anxiety as an actual crash did.

Another study involved 270 men and women from across the United States taking a short online survey in which they were asked to remember a dream they had had about a person they knew. People ascribed more importance to pleasant dreams about a person they liked as compared to a person they did not like, while they were more likely to consider an unpleasant dream more meaningful if it was about a person they disliked.

“In other words, people attribute meaning to dreams when it corresponds with their preexisting beliefs and desires,” says Morewedge.

“Most people understand that dreams are unlikely to predict the future, but that doesn’t prevent them from finding meaning in their dreams, whether their contents are mundane or bizarre,” says Morewedge.

The studies are reported in an article published in the February issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.