Dreaming, Vol. 10, No. 2, 2000



The Consistency and Continuity Hypotheses

Revisited through the Dreams

of Women at Two Periods of their Lives


 Monique Lortie-Lussier

Lucie Côté & Julie Vachon

School of Psychology

University of Ottawa - Canada


Monique Lortie-Lussier, Ph.D.
School of Psychology,
University of Ottawa,
l45 Jean-Jacques Lussier,
C.P. 450, Station A,
Ottawa (Ontario) K1N 6N5 Canada


The purpose of the present longitudinal study was to determine the extent of consistency in dream content at two periods of adulthood as well as continuity with the psychosocial development of the dreamers.  Twenty-one women kept a dream diary for a few weeks at intervals of 10, 15 or 17 years.  ANOVAs for repeated measures were performed on the mean frequencies per dreamer of different dream elements or ratios of these elements.  No significant changes were found.  Pearson moment correlations yielded high and significant internal consistency for friendly and aggressive interactions.  None of the others were significant.  Ratios and indices calculated on subclasses of characters, settings, interactions and emotions revealed significant deviations from female norms, at one or the other of the phases.  These different findings are discussed within the theoretical perspective of continuity with developmental stages in women=s lives.


KEYWORDS: dream content - longitudinal - consistency - continuity - women

The continuity and consistency hypotheses are mainstays of Calvin Hall=s cognitive theory of dreams (Hall, 1953a, 1953b).  Continuity refers to the relationship between concerns expressed in dreams and a person=s concerns and conceptions in the waking state.  Consistency, to the repetition of the same elements in a person=s dream over a long period of time.  Based on quantified regularities and patterns in the manifest content of home collected dreams, these hypotheses provided Hall with empirical foundations to explore the meaning of dreams.  The continuity hypothesis has been extensively tested to compare, for instance, groups of people or to verify specific hypotheses about the functions of dreams.  There is considerable evidence that dreams incorporate waking concerns (see Domhoff, (1996), Lortie-Lussier, De Koninck & Roy (1994), and Van de Castle (1994) for reviews).

In contrast, consistency has not benefited from similar scholarly interest although Hall made the analysis of long dream series a major focus of his research in the 1950s and 1960s and found support for this hypothesis.  A laboratory study of REM dreams by Kramer and Roth (1979) provides additional evidence in support of it.  The reported study will reexamine this notion within the perspective of continuity.

Domhoff (1996) sums up the major findings of these studies, including some by Hall that had never been published before.  He states: AThere is considerable consistency of dream content in categories with large frequencies@ (i.e. hundreds) (...), while there are Asometimes changes in some content categories in each series that make sense in terms of the person=s altered life circumstances@ (p. 131).  Domhoff identifies three forms of consistency.  It can be absolute when the frequency of a class or classes of dream elements remains the same; relative when the proportions of certain elements are stable.  It can also take the form of developmental regularity, defined as patterned increases or decreases of certain elements over prolonged periods.  While relative consistency is the most frequently encountered form of consistency, followed by absolute constancy, developmental regularity is a rare occurrence.  Closer examination of the findings reported by Domhoff (1996) suggests that each kind of consistency is dependent upon the nature of the dream elements.  Absolute constancy prevails mainly for broad categories such as characters, including the percentage of human characters, single or plural, male and female. These large categories represent in fact the building blocks of most dream narratives in any given population of adults.  Breakdowns into subclasses of characters, such as immediate family, known characters or strangers, suggest that the other kinds of consistency, relative and developmental, reveal the individual signature of dream content.

The findings of the long dream series, to which Kramer and Roth=s (1979) laboratory study added controlled evidence, show that dream elements reoccur over time in recognizable, if not always similar patterns.  What are their implications with respect to the individualized elaboration and construction of dreams, apart from dismissing the notion that they are random and chaotic combinations of images?  Taking into account the premises Hall built his theory of the meaning of dreams upon, how does consistency relate to continuity?  Considering the person in the waking state, is dream consistency the reflection of crystallized preoccupations and conceptions that evolve little over time?  If so, the dreamer could then be thought of as a writer who keeps rewriting the same novel or play all over again, with only minor variations.  Such a deterministic view of what we dream about and how we construct our dreams is not in keeping with stage theories of developmental change over the life cycle presented by Erikson (1982); Jung (1933); and Neugarten (1979).  The interface of consistency and continuity is therefore an issue that warrants further research. 

One approach would be to conduct more long dream series research, at the condition dreamers supply the kind of relevant psychological information lacking in past studies (Domhoff, 1996).  Such investigations would yield the large data base necessary to obtain significant statistical results.  Orienting research in that direction would not, however, dispel concerns about the influence of a possible practice effect of keeping a dream diary.

The present longitudinal study proposes an alternative approach, based on a comparison of dreams reported by women at two different periods of their lives.  To our knowledge, this type of study has never been done before.  Its objective is to determine the degree and form of consistency as well as changes in dream content over time, in view of the changes that took place in the dreamers= lives, at intervals of 10, 15 or 17 years.  The sample consists of 21 women who had taken part in earlier studies conducted at the University of Ottawa (Lortie-Lussier, Schwab & De Koninck, 1985; Rinfret, Lortie-Lussier & De Koninck, 1991; Sirois-Berliss & De Koninck, 1982).  What the sample lacks in size is compensated by substantial biographical information collected at both phases of the project, and by the record of activities and events on the days before dreams were reported.  Diary keeping was in each instance spread over a few weeks.  None of the participants kept dream diaries.

Continuity was the focus of the original investigations in which these women participated.  Dreams were analysed with Hall and Van de Castle=s (1966) coding system and various other scales, while their themes were reconstructed from certain dream elements for the purpose of our theory-driven investigations.  They focused alternately on menstrual stress among university students (Sirois-Berliss & De Koninck, 1982), on the influence of social roles on the dreams of professionally active mothers compared to those of housewives (Lortie-Lussier et al., 1985) or of single university students (Rinfret et al., 1991).  Continuity with waking life was reflected by the characters with whom dreamers interacted, by self-conceptions and concerns about significant others mainly drawn from the family and/or professional environment.  Support for the continuity hypothesis was also drawn from studies which examined the influence of age (Côté, Lortie-Lussier, Roy, & De Koninck, 1996; Lortie-Lussier & Delorme, 1990), consistent with earlier investigations by Brenneis (1974) and Howe and Blick (1983). 

Côté et al.=s (1996) study, which compared the dreams of three groups of women ranging in age from the middle 20s to the middle 50s, is of particular relevance for the present one.  Findings can be summarized as follows.  There were no significant differences among the groups in manifest dream content relative to most of Hall and Van de Castle=s categories.  Some differences among the age groups were found though.  For example, the activity level and participation of the dreamers in their dreams increased as a function of age.  After the three groups were collapsed into two, below and above 40 years, additional differences were identified.  They included greater autonomy and achievement striving among the older group, but less emotions and less negative dream outcomes.  These changes were congruent with the findings of  the longitudinal study of the Mills College graduates, which was based on stage theories of adult development.  From the second half of the 30s on, these women were found to become more independent and dominant, to have more adaptative skills, and to integrate masculine characteristics (Helson & Moane, 1987; Helson & Wink, 1992; Helson, Stewart & Osgrove,

1995).  The present study is in a sense a follow up of that one which concluded that Athe impact of age on dreams remains an unsettled issue.  It would be of the greatest interest to

conduct longitudinal studies of dreams, parallel to those of Helson, in order to identify and assess dream commonalities among different cohorts@ (Côté et al., 1996, p. 198). 

Turning to predictions for the present exploratory investigation, some degree of consistency is expected, regardless of the interval between the two periods, as was found in long dream series.  Following the logic of continuity, however, we also expect to find changes in the dreams of our participants as they reach the age range when changes in waking development are assumed to take place.   The changes, consistent with those observed by Côté et al (1996), would include a decrease in emotions and negative dream outcomes, an increase in the participation level of the dreamer and in her autonomy.



With the help of the Alumni Office of the University of Ottawa, 69 of the 102 French Canadian graduates who took part in one of our earlier investigations were sent invitations in the mail to participate in the second phase of the project. Eleven letters did not reach destination.  Despite repeated attempts to sustain the motivation of those who had difficulty recalling their dreams, nine volunteers dropped out, leaving 21 participants who completed all the requirements of the study.  All this to explain the small size of the sample. 

The composition of the sample takes into account the age of the participants, at phases 1 and 2 of dream collection and the interval between these phases.  The mean age of the participants at phase 1 was 29 years, at phase 2, 44.  At phase 2, the seven women who were between the ages of 30 and 39, had kept a dream diary in 1977-1978 for the Sirois-Berliss and De Koninck (1982) study or in 1985-1986 for the Rinfret et al. (1991) one.  The intervals for them were therefore 17 and 10 years, respectively.  Ten women were between 40 and 49, four between 50 and 55.  Their original dreams were collected in 1981-1982 for the Lortie-Lussier et al.=s (1985) and Rinfret et al.=s (1991) projects, with an interval of 15 years. 

The personal information questionnaire for the second phase of the study included questions about general health, sleep habits, actual and past employment, major life events and changes since their first participation. The sample is remarkably homogeneous in many respects.  All the participants were or had been married, including three divorcees who had new spouses.  All, but one, had children.  All women were gainfully employed at phase 2.  The majority had been trained in traditionally feminine or gender-neutral university programs, such as humanities, education, psychology and connected fields.  A number of them worked in administrative positions.  A few were lawyers and physicians.  Among the oldest women, four were looking forward to early retirement, in order to pursue more challenging activities.  Many reported the death of parents and siblings in recent years.  Apart from the deaths of loved ones, no recent major crisis was reported.

Data Collection

Dream diary forms for three days and the  personal information questionnaire were mailed to each participant along with a request to return the material in a prepaid envelope within a month.  The standard dream diary procedure (Hall & Van de Castle, 1966) was explained.  Participants were asked to date their dreams and mention the day of the menstrual cycle.  A consent form was signed by all participants.

Dream content measures

Two or three dream reports per subject per phase were content analysed, for a total of 117 dreams, 55 for phase 1 and 62 for phase 2.  The dreams had to be from different nights and contain a minimum of 60 words and a maximum of 300.  A combination of scales and categories was used.  They included Hall and Van de Castle=s (1966) categories for characters (with the addition of subclasses for spouses/boyfriends, and co-workers), settings, emotions, aggressive and friendly interactions.  Emotions were scored only for the dreamer as character, as were the participation (Foulkes, Larson, Swanson & Rardin, 1969) and autonomy (Lortie-Lussier et al., 1985) scales which were used in Côté et al.=s (1996) study.  The hedonic tone of the dream (Foulkes, Spear & Symonds, 1966) was also rated.

Thematic analysis of the dream narratives was done as well.  Themes were classified as: family, spouse/boyfriend, work/studies, friends, others (which include bizarre dreams based on strange, nonhuman or fantastic characters, actions and settings or dreams related to the past).  The classification was achieved through the identity of the characters, settings, action and events.  If the dreamer faced a problem in the dream, the resolution, or outcome, was scored as positive, negative, or neutral.

The scoring for 100 of the dreams was done by the same two judges as in the study by Côté et al. (1996).  Interjudge reliability was calculated for each dream element, including the thematic elements. The percentage of perfect agreement was in all instances above 89%, and within the range of 94% and 100% in most cases.  One of these judges scored the remaining 17 dreams which were returned after the other judge was unavailable.



Different statistical analyses were performed in order to assess the consistency of the various dream elements at phase 1 and phase 2 of the investigation.  First, ANOVAs for repeated measures were done on the mean frequencies per dreamer of the selected variables.  Mean frequencies and standard deviations of all the Hall and Van de Castle (1966) categories, mean scores of the autonomy (Lortie-Lussier & al, 1985) and participation (Foulkes et al., 1969) scales are presented on Tables 1 and 2.  The ANOVAs yielded no significant changes on any of these variables.  It should be noted that the mean frequencies of negative emotions and aggressions were lower at phase 2, and the mean scores of autonomy higher, consistent with expectations.

                                                              Insert Tables 1 and 2

In addition, percentages and ratios were calculated to correct for differences in dream length.  They concern subclasses of the following categories: characters, settings, aggressive and friendly interactions, emotions,  hedonic tone and outcomes.  Their means and standard deviations are presented on Table 3.  The results of the ANOVAs performed on these ratios and percentages show no significant changes either.

                                                                Insert Table 3 here

Additionally, Pearson product moment correlations were done on these percentages and ratios in order to assess the degree of internal consistency among dreamers between the two phases.  Their coefficients are presented on Table 3.  The coefficients reached significance for aggressions over all characters, (r(20) = .48, p < .05) and friendly interactions over all characters (r(20) = .48, p < .05).  None of the others were significant.  The ratio of positive outcomes over all outcomes had the highest, but not significant, correlation coefficient (r(5) = .65).

Despite the small size of the dream sample, another analysis was performed to compare certain elements of the dreams with the Hall and Van de Castle (1966) norms for female college students.  It concerns characters, settings, aggression, friendliness and emotions.  The calculation of these ratios was done on the total of dreams collected at phase 1 (N = 55) and at phase 2 (N = 62).  Cohen=s (1977) test of significance for differences between independent samples yielded significant differences from the norms for the following ratios at one or/and of the two phases.  At phase 1, adult characters percent (h = -.42 p = .001), outdoors settings percent (h = -.37 p < .01), and aggression with all characters percent (h = .23 p < .01) were significantly lower than the norms.  At phase 2, the unfamiliar settings percent (h = .42 p < .01) was significantly higher than the norms whereas the adult characters percent (h = -.31 p = .001), aggression percent (h = -.47

p < .001), aggression with all characters (h = .38 p < .001) and dreamer=s negative emotions percent (h = .-28 p < .02) were all significantly lower.  The male percent and friendly interactions index were the only ones not to differ significantly from the norms at either phase.  Figure 1 illustrates the pattern of deviations from the norms.




Table 4 presents the percentages of dreams according to their main themes.

  Insert Table 4 here




The present study was undertaken to examine the relationship between the consistency of dreams collected from the same women at intervals of 10, 15, or 17 years and their continuity with concerns assumed to have undergone changes in the meantime.  Based on the findings of long dream series, some degree of consistency was expected, but changes were predicted as a function of aging.  While the results of the ANOVAs performed on all the selected variables indicate stability of dream content over time for the group as a whole, the variations in the correlation coefficients of dream ratios suggest that stability is a matter of degree, depending on the dream dimension.  These findings are congruent with those of the long dream series.  On the other hand, support for continuity can be derived from changes in the expected direction for a few variables, as well as for the dream themes.  Moreover, deviations from the female norms at one and/or the other phase of the study suggest continuity with psychosocial changes in female adulthood.  In view of the small set of data and of the different statistical procedures we adopted, discussion of our findings commands a cautious approach.  It will focus first on consistency.

The correlations relative to the identity of the dreams protagonists, settings, emotions and hedonic tone show variations across dreams and/or dreamers.  They reached significance only in the case of the percent of interactions, friendly and aggressive, with all characters.  This is an example of relative consistency that could be interpreted as a reflection of the personality coherence of the dreamers.  Although the high correlation for positive dreams outcomes was not significant, due probably to the small number of dreamers who reported dreams with problems to solve, it is an interesting finding, suggestive of consistent coping strategy.  Apart from these instances of consistency, our findings are hardly comparable to those of the individual dream series, in which the frequencies of certain content categories were in the hundreds.  Methodologically speaking, our longitudinal study fell short of one of its objectives.

Turning to the continuity hypothesis, how do these results relate to the developmental changes that had been reflected in those of the women, aged 25 to 55 years, who had participated in the Côté et al.=s (1996) study?  Before discussing them, it should be noted that during the first phase of the study a third of the participants were single and just entering adulthood, while the others were in their 30s and early 40s.  By phase 2, the younger dreamers were in turn in their 30s.  The mix of ages, in such a small and highly homogeneous sample, may have offset the influence of age, and inherent developmental changes, on dream content, since these changes are not necessarily linear.  For instance, the non significant decrease in emotions, aggressions, and number of friends, and the increase in autonomy and frequency of coworkers might have reached significance, had the sample been larger.

The comparison of selected indices with the Hall and Van de Castle norms for female college students provides indicators of the influence of age and of continuity with waking experience.  The patterns of deviations from the norms include significantly lower ratios of negative emotions and aggressions, and adult percent and, on the other hand, a significantly higher percent of unfamiliar settings.  These tendencies to a developmental regularity continuous with waking life are consistent with the statistically significant findings in the Côté et al.=s study (1996).  The decrease in emotions and aggression had then been interpreted as reflecting greater personal and social competence, and the increase in unfamiliar settings as indicating masculinity orientation.  Not only are these findings meaningful in terms of age, but also in terms of concerns linked to social roles.  Changes are noticeable in the themes of the dreams, which focus more often at phase 2 on work-related issues than at phase 1 and less on intimate or romantic involvement with spouse and/or boyfriend.  Family related issues, however, constitute the main themes of the dreams at both phases, suggesting the lasting influence of the parental role.

These findings concur with the tenets of stage theories of development throughout adulthood, for which Helson (Helson & Moane, 1987; Helson et al., 1995; Helson & Wink, 1992) had found empirical support.  Increased masculinity orientation, independence, and  adaptive skills emerging in the course of the 30s and accentuated later on, result in waking life not only from the influence of external factors, or life circumstances, but also from the intrapsychic dynamics of  change toward maturity.  As an answer to the question raised in the conclusion of the Côté et al=s (1996) investigation, these changes might be reflected in the dreams of women, as they advance in age, irrespective of cohorts.  The relatively small number of dreams collected here prevented finding stronger evidence for the kind of developmental regularity Domhoff (1996) described and that is suggested here.  In combination, relative consistency and significant deviations from female norms show that consistency does not exclude variability.

The findings of the present study broaden the examination of consistency and its relation with continuity.  They legitimate pursuing longitudinal studies with different groups of dreamers, as a complement to studies of individual long dream series.  Such studies should focus on factors that might account for consistencies and variations across groups.  Better, they should also attempt to differentiate intrapersonal consistency as an individual characteristic, from consistency as a characteristic of cohorts.  To do so, it would be necessary to identify more clearly the dream elements and dimensions that are most sensitive to individual and developmental changes.  The present findings, combined with earlier ones (Brenneis, 1975; Côté et al, 1996; Howe & Blick, 1983), suggest that interactions, aggressive ones particularly, emotions and outcomes fall within those dimensions.  Results related to the aggression index are a point in case.  The high correlation between its measure at the two phases, combined with the increasing deviation from the female norms is a phenomenon that we have attributed tentatively to aging, better, to the progression toward maturity.  Other studies may provide a more definitive answer to this issue.  The dynamics of continuity and change throughout adult life have been the object of developmental theories worth transposing to dreaming.  Although the Hall and Van de Castle (1966) classification system is an invaluable starting point for orienting research in this direction, additions might be useful in order to test theories concerning continuity between waking and dreaming.  Adding categories borrowed from other researchers or devising specific categories, as we did, may help develop a better theoretical understanding of consistency and its patterning in dream content.  But they first and foremost are likely to be useful in finding developmental regularities that relate to new stages in adult development.


Table 1

Mean Frequencies, Standard Deviations of Characters, Settings and Interactions as a Function of Phases







Phase 1




Phase 2


Dream variables


M              SD 




M            SD 












1.08        (0.70)




1.07      (0.62)




1.08        (0.69)




1.23      (0.68)




2.31        (1.20)




2.44      (1.24)




0.65        (0.70)




0.53      (0.50)




0.33        (0.30)




0.31      (0.30)




0.27        (0.34)




0.14      (0.27)




0.36        (0.43)




0.55      (0.69)




0.89        (0.84)




0.90      (0.83)




3.12        (1.33)




3.18      (1.37)












0.87        (0.32)




0.79      (0.48)




0.26        (0.37)




0.34      (0.30)




0.61        (0.37)




0.60      (0.43)




0.38        (0.52)




0.40      (0.49)










     Total aggressions


0.48        (0.40)




0.31      (0.37)


     Total friendly


0.70        (0.56)




0.80      (0.78)


Table 2


Mean Frequencies or Scores and Standard Deviations of Dream Variables Scored for the Dreamer as Character, as a Function of Phases







Phase 1




Phase 2




M               SD 




M              SD 












0.42         (0.50)




0.42        (0.57)


     Negative Emotions


1.10         (0.86)




0.91        (0.62)










Participation a)


3.40         (0.51)




3.47        (0.40)










Autonomy a)


0.60         (0.36)




0.71        (0.32)


a) The values are mean scores

Table 3


Means Scores and Standard Deviations of Ratios and Indices of Dream Variables as a Function of Phases and Pearson Correlations between Them




  Phase 1                        Phase 2

Ratios                                     M        SD                   M         SD                   Pearson ra


Males                                       0.50     (0.21)               0.47     (0.36)               - 0.25

    Females & Males

Children                                   0.22     (0.19)               0.18     (0.03)               - 0.12

    Children & Adults

Family                                      0.67     (0.14)               0.60     (0.15)               - 0.18

     Family & Coworkers                                                          



Unfamiliar                                 0.35     (0.36)               0.37     (0.35)               0.09

     Total Settings

Outdoor                                   0.19     (0.23)               0.28     (0.23)               0.18

     Total Settings

Residential                                0.83     (0.25)               0.66     (0.46)               0.25

     Residential & Work



Aggression                               0.45     (0.34)               0.32     (0.37)               0.32

     Aggression & Friendly

Aggression                               0.18     (0.21)               0.12     (0.18)               0.48 *

     Total Characters

Friendly                                    0.23     (0.20)               0.26     (0.23)               0.48 *

     Total Characters



Negative                                   0.73     (0.27)               0.77     (0.26)               0.24

     Total emotions


Hedonic mode                                                           

Unpleasant dreams                   0.80     (0.30)               0.83     (0.27)               0.26

     Pleasant & Unpleasant



Positive                                    0.83     (0.35)               0.39     (0.49)               0.65

     Positive & Negative


* p < .05

Table 4

Percentages of the main themes of the dreams, at phases 1 and 2

Themes                                                Phase 1                                    Phase 2


Family                                                  29%                                         32%

Spouse/boyfriend                                  22%                                         16%

Work/studies                                        15%                                         23%

Friends                                                 9%                                           4%

Others                                                  25%                                         24%


Figure 1

h - Profiles of the Women=s Dreams, at Phase 1 and Phase 2 Compared to the Female Norms.


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                                                                   Author=s Note

Completion of this research was possible thanks to a grant from the Faculty of Social Sciences of the University of Ottawa.

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