Jer Clifton is a psychology researcher at School of Arts and Sciences which studies people’s most basic beliefs about the world. He is also the father of a 3-year-old daughter; so, like many other parents of young children, he knows the plot of more than a few Disney movies by heart.
“Tangled” is one of her daughter’s favorites. The 2010 animated film revisits the story of Rapunzel, telling the story of a girl trapped in a tower by an evil witch. To dissuade her from running away, the witch convinces the young Rapunzel that the outside world is a dangerous place, full of obstacles and enemies. When Rapunzel finally runs away from her tower, she is scared at first. But as she overcomes challenges in her own way, she begins to realize that the outside world isn’t so dangerous after all.
For Clifton, the story of “Tangled” is more than a fairy tale; it’s an example of how the core beliefs people have about the world shape their behavior and well-being. Clifton calls these beliefs primitive world beliefs., or “primals” to shorten it. Rapunzel’s tale exemplifies one of these primals: the belief that the world is a safe (or dangerous) place.
Clifton predicts that primitive world beliefs like these hold a key to understanding numerous studies by psychologists of outcomes, from personality to political leanings. And, with colleagues at Penn’s Positive Psychology Center, he leads research that shifts the focus from behavioral psychology to beliefs, while developing tools to help everyone understand what their primitive world beliefs are and what they mean.
A lifelong project
Clifton’s fascination with the way people see the world began at a young age. The child of Baptist missionaries in Taiwan and Hong Kong, he grew up deeply religious. When he struggled with stuttering, he took it as a sign that his goal in life was to write a book. While studying philosophy at Houghton College, he began writing his first manuscript, a philosophical proof that the world, he said, “must be objectively a wonderful place to exist”.
But even though he had built a solid philosophical argument supporting a view of the world as a beautiful and captivating place, he wasn’t sure he believed it himself. To break through his own cognitive dissonance, “I started writing down five new beautiful things every day I saw,” Clifton says. As he continued the practice and turned his attention to finding beauty in his daily life, he began to feel that the world was objectively good, he said. “My well-being has soared.”
Wondering how a change in worldview could alter his mood so drastically, Clifton turned to psychology. Under the direction of Martin Seligman, a Zellerbach family psychology professor and director of the Penn Positive Psychology Center, Clifton began to empirically study beliefs about the world. While previous research has examined single, isolated beliefs – such as the belief that the world is a just place – there has been no systematic attempt to empirically determine the key beliefs humans hold about the world as a whole. .
Clifton spent five years collaborating with an international team of scholars to capture beliefs about the world as a whole. This effort was the culmination of interdisciplinary research efforts and 10 different projects. His team combed through historically influential novels, speeches, religious texts and films; analyzed more than 80,000 tweets containing phrases such as “the world is…” or “life is…”; and discussed worldviews with religious and academic opinion leaders to “capture all general claims about the world,” says Clifton.
As he and his colleagues pieced together statements like the Buddha’s assertion that “life is suffering” or King Solomon’s statement that “everything is meaningless,” they began to reveal recurring feelings about the world. They then used these utterances to create hundreds of items, administered them to thousands of participants, and uncovered statistically repeatable dimensions underlying these different ways of seeing the world.
How primals shape who we are
Clifton and his colleagues found that all the feelings they analyzed fell into 26 distinct categories, which they described in a paper 2019. These categories can generally be organized into three dimensions which form the most important primals: the world is safe (or dangerous), the world is seductive (or dull), and the world is alive (or mechanistic). These are not binary beliefs, but continuums with multiple nuances. Where people’s beliefs land on these continuums, Clifton says, determines whether they see the world as a whole as a good place or a bad place.
Where we fall on the spectrum of these early world beliefs, Clifton says, is “massively predictive of how we live our lives and what kind of well-being we experience.” The search for the Penn Primals Project supports this notion; a study 2021 showed that many parents deliberately aim to instill in their children negative beliefs about the primitive world, in particular the belief that the world is a dangerous place, assuming that seeing the world as dangerous is linked to health, happiness and to success. But the truth is that those who see the world as dangerous are less likely to succeed, tend to have poorer health, and suffer from depression at a higher rate. Likewise, a study published this month suggests that some primals, whose belief that the world is hierarchical and that the world is fair, are linked to political beliefs.
The Penn Primals Project is a research center dedicated to the beliefs of the primal world, but primal research has already spread outside of the university. David Yaden from Johns Hopkins University, who also completed his doctoral training with Seligman, uses primals at the frontiers of psychology, studying how psilocybin influences beliefs about the world. The Primals have even made their way into the world of robotics, where Chock Mutlu from the University of Wisconsin-Madison explores how programming robots with different beliefs can simulate human personality. Dozens of research labs are now studying primals around the world.
So far, Clifton says the best interpretation of the research is that there are many net benefits to seeing the world as a good place. But regardless of where a person stands on the primal spectrum, he hopes these measures will allow people to understand themselves and others on a more fundamental level.
For those who want to discover their own primals – and learn what their results mean to them – the Penn Primals Project currently offers three online surveys. Their 99 question survey measures the 26 beliefs of the primitive world, a condensed Survey in 18 questionsand one Survey in 6 questions. Each survey provides comparisons with a larger sample of Americans, so people can see how their beliefs compare to others.
Understanding your own primary beliefs, Clifton says, is “a chance for all of us to reflect and step back, because the beginning of empathy is seeing what the world is like from another person’s perspective.”