Maladaptive daydreaming: a shortened assessment measure and its mental health correlates in a large United States sample

Research summary:

Soffer-Dudek, N., and Oh, H. (2024) Maladaptive daydreaming: a shortened assessment measure and its mental health correlates in a large United States sample. Comprehensive Psychiatry, 129.

This article makes two main contributions to maladaptive daydreaming research.

Maladaptive daydreaming short form (MD-SF5)

The first is the maladaptive daydreaming short form (MD-SF5). This is a condensed version of the MDS-16. There are just five questions instead of the original sixteen. This means that the MD-SF5 will be quicker to complete and therefore easier to use in research studies that recruit large numbers of participants online.

The MD-SF5 uses five questions from the original MDS-16, carefully selected to accurately separate maladaptive daydreamers from non-daydreamers. Crucially, the MD-SF5 focusses on the maladaptive components of maladaptive daydreaming, by asking how daydreaming hinders the daydreamer’s ability to live in the real world.

This study did not specifically address immersive daydreaming. However, I think the MD-SF5 will be much better than the MDS-16 at distinguishing between maladaptive daydreamers and immersive daydreamers. The questions in the MDS-16 that immersive daydreamers score highly on, such as whether daydreaming is enjoyable, aren’t used in the MD-SF5. And the two questions about music aren’t included either, meaning that daydreamers who aren’t triggered by music aren’t automatically considered less maladaptive than those who are.

Immersive daydreamers can often score close to the cut-off on the MDS-16. Therefore, studies that use MDS-16 scores to divide participants into daydreamer and non-daydreamer groups typically end up with immersive daydreamers in both groups. I think this will be less of a problem with the MD-SF5, making it a valuable research tool.

Like the MDS-16, the MD-SF5 is not intended to be a diagnostic tool. It can only suggest that someone might be a maladaptive daydreamer. A definitive diagnosis still requires a conversation with a qualified mental health professional using the SCIMD.

Health correlates of maladaptive daydreaming

In the second part of the study, the researchers used the MD-SF5 along with other mental-health screening questionnaires to identify differences between maladaptive daydreamers and non-daydreamers in a range of mental health contexts. This part of the study included over 2500 participants, and, unlike many maladaptive daydreaming studies, the participants were not recruited from maladaptive daydreaming forums, so they were not primarily self-identified maladaptive daydreamers.

The researchers found that an incredible 34.6% of participants scored highly enough on the MD-SF5 to have probable maladaptive daydreaming. A previous study has suggested around 2.5% of the population might be maladaptive daydreamers. The researchers note that “we cannot infer estimated prevalence in the US population” and “heightened psychopathology seems to be characteristic of such online panel samples, partially due to their socio-economic and demographic composition”. Therefore, it appears that this figure of 34.6% can be dismissed as unrealistic for the population as a whole. Nevertheless, even if the participants were much more likely than average to have mental health problems, I still find it interesting that over one-third of them were potentially maladaptive daydreamers.

Suicidality

The really concerning finding, however, is that maladaptive daydreamers are twice as likely as non-daydreamers to be suicidal or to have attempted suicide. And the researchers showed that this was not solely due to maladaptive daydreamers having poorer mental health than non-daydreamers. However, they couldn’t say whether immersive daydreamers are more likely to become maladaptive daydreamers if they have suicidal feelings (i.e. that suicidality causes maladaptive daydreaming) or whether maladaptive daydreamers are more likely than non-daydreamers to develop suicidal feelings (i.e. that maladaptive daydreaming causes suicidality). The researchers acknowledge that further studies will be needed to address this.

The researchers conclude their discussion of suicidality in maladaptive daydreamers by saying “our results strongly support the significance of maladaptive daydreaming as a marker or indicator of increased risk, meaning that it is crucial to screen for it and ask about it in clinical interviews”. Clearly, this will only happen once there is much more awareness among mental health professionals of the seriousness of maladaptive daydreaming.