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Posted on Fri, Dec 2, 2011 : 5:22 p.m.

Overspent? Do you dream of playful or scary animals?

By Wayne Baker

Editor's note: This post is part of a series by Dr. Baker on Our Values about core American values. In light of Cyber-Monday, Dr. Baker is discussing America's consumer culture and our tendencies to overspend.

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Can your dreams tell you anything about your consumer behavior? Interpreting dreams is an age-old endeavor. Modern science, however, has produced reliable research on the meanings of particular dreams. That includes dreams indicating that some people are more materialistic than others. James Roberts reports on this research in "Shiny Objects," the book we’re discussing this week.

Suppose these are recurring themes in your dreams: falling, ferocious animals you can’t control, dead people or ghostly figures beckoning to the grave.
What would all this mean? These themes are common in the dreams of "high materialists"—those who buy a lot, overspend, and purchase things for status value.

These themes rarely occur in the dreams of "low materialists" — people who stay within their means, who don’t overspend, and who purchase things for use value or comfort, not for status. For example, death is a theme in 21 percent of the dreams high materialists have, while it is mentioned in only 3 percent of the low materialists' dreams. When low materialists dream of ferocious animals, they are able to tame them — the "scary dog" becomes the "playful dog." High materialists can't do that.

What’s the link to purchasing behavior? The dreams of high materialists reveal insecurity, anxiety and terror — especially the terror of death. To cope, high materialists buy things. What’s called "terror management theory" says awareness of our own deaths "motivates people to enrich their lives with meaning and bolster their sense of worth by adopting important cultural values," writes Roberts. In a consumer society, this means the scared go shopping.

The dreams of low materialists reveal much less insecurity, anxiety and terror. Hence, they have less of a need to compensate by buying things.

Not buying this analysis? Consider this: Consumption shot up in the time after 9/11, consistent with terror management theory. You may recall that George W. Bush said that we should not let the terrorists prevent us from shopping.

What sorts of dreams do you have?

Do you see a link between dreams and the impulse to overspend?

Please add a comment below ….

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Originally published at, an online experiment in civil dialogue on American values.

Dr. Wayne E. Baker is a sociologist on the faculty of the University of Michigan Ross School of Business. Baker blogs daily at Our Values and can be reached at or on Facebook.