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Happy in a crummy world: Implications of primal world beliefs for increasing wellbeing through positive psychology interventions

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Primal world beliefs are a recently-identified set of basic perceptions about the general character of reality (e.g. the world is boring) thought to have many psychological implications. This article explores implications relevant to wellbeing and positive intervention research. After summarizing the supposed general function of primal world beliefs, I specify ten hypotheses concerning gratitude, curiosity, optimism, trust, self-efficacy, positive emotions, engagement, meaning, life satisfaction, and overall wellbeing. Each variable may involve behavioral patterns that present as trait-like personality characteristics while actually being context-specific reactions to underlying (and malleable) perceptions. Experimental research could test these hypotheses by (a) examining whether primal world beliefs partially mediate the wellbeing impact of established interventions such as Three Good Things and (b) creating novel interventions specifically targeting primal world beliefs. To foster the latter, I discuss elements that novel interventions might incorporate, illustrating with an example called the Leaf Exercise.
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Happy in a crummy world: Implications of primal
world beliefs for increasing wellbeing through
positive psychology interventions
Jeremy D. W. Clifton
To cite this article: Jeremy D. W. Clifton (2020): Happy in a crummy world: Implications of primal
world beliefs for increasing wellbeing through positive psychology interventions, The Journal of
Positive Psychology, DOI: 10.1080/17439760.2020.1789703
To link to this article: https://doi.org/10.1080/17439760.2020.1789703
Published online: 07 Jul 2020.
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Happy in a crummy world: Implications of primal world beliefs for increasing
wellbeing through positive psychology interventions
Jeremy D. W. Clifton
Department of Psychology, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA, USA
ABSTRACT
Primal world beliefs: are a recently-identied set of basic perceptions about the general character
of reality (e.g. the world is boring) thought to have many psychological implications. This article
explores implications relevant to wellbeing and positive intervention research. After summarizing
the supposed general function of primal world beliefs, I specify ten hypotheses concerning
gratitude, curiosity, optimism, trust, self-ecacy, positive emotions, engagement, meaning, life
satisfaction, and overall wellbeing. Each variable may involve behavioral patterns that present as
trait-like personality characteristics while actually being context-specic reactions to underlying
(and malleable) perceptions. Experimental research could test these hypotheses by (a) examining
whether primal world beliefs partially mediate the wellbeing impact of established interventions
such as Three Good Things and (b) creating novel interventions specically targeting primal world
beliefs. To foster the latter, I discuss elements that novel interventions might incorporate, illustrat-
ing with an example called the Leaf Exercise.
ARTICLE HISTORY
Received 29 May 2019
Accepted 14 December 2019
KEYWORDS
Primal world beliefs; positive
psychology; positive
psychology interventions;
gratitude; curiosity; hope;
optimism; trust; self-efficacy;
positive emotions;
engagement; meaning; life
satisfaction; wellbeing
Being happy in this sh**hole of a world we live in is f**king
impossible. – Anonymized blogger, 2019
Clifton et al. (2019) recently introduced a set of vari-
ables with theoretical implications for several disciplines
but did not unpack those implications. This paper aims
to correct that for those who study positive psychology
interventions (PPIs). After discussing the general theore-
tical signicance of these new variables, I will illustrate
their relevance to wellbeing via ten specic hypotheses,
ending with a discussion of how hypotheses might be
tested.
The general theoretical signicance of primal
world beliefs
Whether a beautiful vacation spot or dangerous war-
zone, humans are responsive to beliefs about the gen-
eral character of the circumstance they are in. For
example, perceiving one’s surroundings as crummy
should impact wellbeing directly by, say, decreasing
positive emotions, and indirectly by inducing behaviors
known to lower wellbeing, such as neuroticism. High
reactivity to such perceptions are typically adaptive,
helping organisms capitalize on opportunities and com-
pensate for threats. For example, an organism’s percep-
tion of a barren environment is thought to play
a determinative role in deciding when to move on
from a food patch (Charnov, 1976). Yet, psychologists
have never seriously considered the vast ramications if
humans had dierent beliefs not only about places
within the world but also the global character of the
whole world as one giant place.
As Clifton and Kim (2020) note, when an organism’s
behavior is observed in a single context, like a dog in
a dog park, it is dicult to judge the extent to which the
behavior is context-specic (i.e. a state-like reaction to
that park) or organism-specic (i.e. a trait-like expression
of that dog). Likewise, if an organism has beliefs about
a place the organism never leaves, then these beliefs
would drive many patterns of behavior that would man-
ifest as seemingly trait-like personality characteristics
while actually being context-specic reactions to an
underlying perception. Moreover, if this place was popu-
lated by other organisms who also never left yet viewed
the shared circumstance dierently, all would likely mis-
interpret the behavior of others – and themselves – as
stemming from dierences in character rather than mere
dierences of opinion. In other words, these creatures
would commit the fundamental attribution error on
a massive scale.
To explore the possibility that this scenario
describes the human condition, Clifton and colleagues
(2019) (Clifton, 2020) conducted the rst broad-based
eort to empirically derive all major fundamental
CONTACT Jeremy D. W. Clifton cliftonj@sas.upenn.edu
THE JOURNAL OF POSITIVE PSYCHOLOGY
https://doi.org/10.1080/17439760.2020.1789703
© 2020 Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group
beliefs about the world as a whole, which we called
primals or primal world beliefs, and validated a Primals
Inventory to measure them. We discovered that indi-
viduals indeed disagree about this world we share,
and do so along 26 normally distributed dimensions.
Most variance was explained by three main primals –
the beliefs that the world is Safe, Enticing, and Alive
which in turn contribute to an overall belief that the
world is Good the general factor. Test-retests across
2 weeks, 9 months, and 19 months suggested primals
are among the most stable traits psychologists mea-
sure outside IQ. Finally, primals were largely orthogo-
nal to demographic variables yet highly correlated
with numerous personality and wellbeing variables in
a pattern remarkably consistent with the strong
hypothesis that most major personality ‘traits’ are dri-
ven in large part by normative, common-sense reac-
tions to underlying primals. A weaker hypothesis is
also possible: primals could be unique, predictive,
and interesting cognitions but typically of marginal
causal importance. Either way, further research is war-
ranted and we (Clifton et al., 2019) highlighted ques-
tions in several elds, including positive psychology.
Ten hypotheses relevant to positive psychology
This section provides ten illustrative hypotheses specify-
ing how primals may inuence ve wellbeing outcomes
and ve personality characteristics known to inuence
wellbeing. As an empirical plausibility check, hypotheses
are accompanied by pairwise correlations and the page
where it can be found in Clifton and colleagues' ( 2019)
supplement. Most of these eects are large and nomin-
ally aected when partialing demographic variables,
including socio-economic status. All reported eects
are signicant (p <.0001) and relationships are replicat-
ing (Clifton, 2020). Unless otherwise indicated, the rele-
vant sample is 524 Americans averaging 37 years old,
half female, and half college-graduates.
Personality variables (character strengths)
Gratitude
Lomas et al. (2014) theorize that state gratitude requires
the perception that a given situation involves (a) good
things to be grateful for and (b) someone to be grateful
to. Likewise, persistent patterns of gratitude (i.e. disposi-
tional gratitude) may never develop without the percep-
tion that this world is (a) overowing with wonderful
things to be grateful for (Enticing, r = .71, page 312) and
(b) animated by someone to be grateful to (Alive, r = .45,
page 312). If so, strengthening these primals will
increase gratitude.
Curiosity
People rarely search for what they do not expect to nd.
Likewise, persistent patterns of curiosity may largely
develop in reaction to the perception that this world is
full of Interesting phenomena (r = .59, page 318) and
Worth Exploring (r = .42, page 318). If so, strengthening
these primals will increase curiosity.
Hope (optimism)
People are naturally optimistic in situations believed to
be inherently positive and with a natural tendency to
heal, ourish, and otherwise improve. Likewise, patterns
of optimism may develop largely in reaction to the
perception that this world is fundamentally Good
(r = .67, page 312) and Regenerative (r = .55, page 319).
If so, strengthening these primals will increase optimism.
Interpersonal trust
People are less trusting in contexts perceived as danger-
ous. Likewise, persistent patterns of interpersonal trust
may develop partly in reaction to the view that the world
is generally Safe (r = .55, page 312). If so, strengthening
this primal will increase trust.
Self-efficacy
People believe they can change a situation when they
see themselves as competent enough, but also when
they see the situation as plastic enough. Likewise,
a persistent pattern of self-ecacy may develop partially
in response to the underlying belief that the world is
Improvable (r (122) = .59, page 503). If so, strengthening
this primal will increase self-ecacy.
Using similar logic, one can expect Enticing to inu-
ence Zest; Needs Me to inuence Perseverance (grit);
Alive to inuence Spirituality; Good to inuence active
destructive responding, and so forth.
Wellbeing outcomes
Positive emotions
Joy, contentment, and other positive emotions are di-
cult to experience in situations seen as awful. Likewise,
positive emotions may more often elude those who see
this world as awful (low Good, r = .63, page 312). If so,
changing the belief will increase positive emotions.
Engagement
It is dicult to engage in places seen as boring. Likewise,
a pattern of decreased engagement may result from
seeing the world as dull and not worth exploring (low
Enticing; r = .58, page 312). If so, changing that percep-
tion will increase engagement.
2J. D. W. CLIFTON
Meaning
It is dicult to achieve a sense of meaning in situations
involving trivial matters, important matters impervious to
change, or important matters that will change but with-
out needing one's help. Likewise, a persistent sense of
meaninglessness may develop in response to the belief
that the world is a place where few things matter (low
Meaningful; r = .60, page 319), little can be changed (low
Improvable; r = .40, page 319), and one's eorts are not
needed (low Needs Me; r = .63, page 319). If so, changing
these beliefs will increase meaning.
Life satisfaction
It is dicult to nd satisfaction in miserable, barren
places. Likewise, life satisfaction may be partly
a reaction to the believe that the world is generally
Pleasurable (r = .53, page 320) and Abundant (r = .47,
page 313). If so, strengthening these beliefs will increase
life satisfaction.
Overall wellbeing
Finding happiness is dicult when residing in places
one abhors. Likewise, as the opening quote elegantly
states, achieving happiness in a world perceived as
a s**thole is highly unlikely (i.e. low Good; r = .66, page
313). If so, changing that perception will increase overall
wellbeing.
Using similar logic, one can expect Enticing to inu-
ence Accomplishment scores; Safe to inuence
Relationship scores; and so on.
A key critique and how to address it
Promising theory and large correlations notwithstand-
ing, all such hypotheses are subject to the critique briey
mentioned above: primals could be mere symptoms –
not causes – of each of these variables. For example,
optimists may believe the world is Good because they
are optimists and the curious may see the world as
Interesting precisely because they are curious – the dis-
position comes rst. Though empirical clues suggest this
dismissal is unjustied, these clues require further
empirical exploration before oering much certainty.
Of relevance to understanding the current state of
primals research may be Beck’s (e.g. Beck, 1963; Beck
et al., 1979) experience convincing reluctant clinical
researchers operating under a behaviorist paradigm
that beliefs similar to primals shape depression. At rst,
despite similarly promising theory and correlational rela-
tionships, Beck’s suggestion about beliefs was dismissed
or ignored (e.g. Beidel & Turner, 1986; A. T. Beck, perso-
nal communication, 1 March 2019). This changed only
after he designed an intervention Cognitive Behavior
Therapy (CBT) – on the premise that these beliefs shaped
depression and demonstrated CBT’s eectiveness. Half
a century later, CBT is the most widespread form of
therapy and the role of beliefs in depression is broadly
acknowledged (e.g. Field et al., 2014). With primals iden-
tied, measurable, and behaving in the nomological net
as if they play a fundamental role in human psychology,
the time is ripe for a similarly clear experimental demon-
stration revealing primals’ causal role. This will require
designing and testing interventions capable of altering
primals, a task to which those studying PPIs are uniquely
suited. .
Can primals be changed?
Some may note primals' marked stability over time and
doubt if primals can be changed. Preliminary research
also suggests that, rather than mirrors that reect the
content of our experiences, primals may function more
like lenses used to interpret experiences while being
themselves largely uninuenced by them (Clifton,
2020a). Wealthy individuals, for example, do not see
the world as more abundant. Even before the stability
of primal world beliefs was apparent, similar beliefs were
considered too fundamental, implicit, and self-
reinforcing to allow for much change (e.g. Jano-
Bulman, 1989). But does observed stability really mean
that primals cannot change? Of course not. Mountains
are not unclimbable because no climbers have tried. As
far as I can tell, most people are unaware of most of their
primals and not seeking to change them (which would
explain stability) and researchers have generally not
tried to manipulate primals experimentally via targeted
interventions.
1
Yet, in addition to CBT, a variety of inter-
ventions are already known to alter similar beliefs
(Dweck, 2017) and many anecdotal accounts describe
how primals change after, say, a semester abroad,
a spiritual experience, a transformative friendship, and
so forth. Unlike explicit beliefs, such as political views,
which become entrenched, many individuals may come
to hold their primals without deliberation or debate, and
may be thus open to alternatives if they knew of them.
Unlike undeniable beliefs dictated by sensory experi-
ence such as the sky is blue, the vast and heterogenous
dataset that is the world could be used to sustain various
contradictory perspectives. It matters where one directs
attention and attention is often controllable.
Moreover, the wellbeing impact of some established
PPIs may already be mediated by unintentionally altered
primals. Three Good Things, Counting Blessings, the
Gratitude Visit, Savoring a Past Positive Event, Savoring
the Present, and Mindful Photography all involve focus-
ing on positive aspects of an environment. Several are
THE JOURNAL OF POSITIVE PSYCHOLOGY 3
explicitly premised on the notion of wellbeing change
via altered environmental beliefs or attitudes (e.g. Smith
et al., 2014). If so, why not the world environment? To
summarize, the notion that primals are impossible to
change must be tested. Experiments might either (a)
test whether a change in primals mediates the impact
of established interventions or (b) test novel interven-
tions that target primals specically.
What might a novel primals intervention look
like?
Having spent the last few years focused on primals mea-
surement, I only recently began considering intervention
design and identifying elements that interventions should
likely incorporate. To aid intervention creation among
those who study PPIs, these reections are provided
alongside one untested illustrative example I call The
Leaf Exercise.
Experiential
Implicit beliefs rarely change as a result of reasoned
argumentation alone. Like most PPIs, primals interven-
tions will likely involve a strong experiential element.
Educational
Some interventions may educate subjects on key issues.
For example, initial research suggests negative primals are
often perpetuated by demonstrably false beliefs about
primals (i.e. meta-beliefs), including the assumption that
most people see the world as we do (i.e. false consensus
bias); one’s negative experiences leaves no choice (e.g.
I have to see the world as barren because I grew up poor);
or utility demands it (e.g. seeing the world as dangerous
keeps me safe)(Clifton, 2020a, 2020b). Some interventions
may also highlight information that directly supports
a primal (e.g. low crime statistics).
Motivational
Perhaps more important than information concerning
which primals are true may be information concerning
which primals are useful. Humans are talented at coming
to believe what is (or appears) useful for achieving suc-
cess and wellbeing. Even though doing so can introduce
problematic demand eects that make it harder to test
intervention ecacy, motivating a subject to want to
believe dierently may, in the long run, be the best
way of changing primal world beliefs.
Attentional
Several biases – especially conrmation bias – focus atten-
tion on information consistent with pre-existing views,
thereby perpetuating primals. Thus, like other PPIs, suc-
cessful primals interventions may involve deliberate
appreciation of disconrming evidence and altering
attentional habits.
Target a sense of scale
Primals concern a uniquely encompassing subject – the
world as a whole. Interventions highlighting a part are
unlikely to change one’s view of the whole without speak-
ing directly to how the part is typical of the whole.
Experiencing a beautiful song or part of nature, for example,
usually will not impart a belief that the world is beautiful.
Target particular primals
Some established PPIs such as Three Good Things cur-
rently target the positive in an untargeted way. The
belief that the world is Good, for example, has three sub-
beliefs – Safe, Enticing, and Alive and only Enticing is
uniquely related to gratitude (Clifton et al., 2019).
Enticing also involves several sub-beliefs, including
Beautiful. If a subject has especially low Beautiful scores,
then, if the goal is to increase gratitude, a subject may
benet most from a Three Beautiful Things exercise
which targets the most gratitude-relevant primal most
immune to ceiling eects.
Target everyday objects
Some interventions may target everyday objects – like
what one sees during a commute – so that repeated
exposure engenders long-term reinforcement of the new
primal. I call them Homeland Tourism exercises. The follow-
ing intervention is an example that targets Beautiful by
directing attention to leaves, though many other ubiqui-
tous beautiful objects, such as snowakes, could be used.
Example intervention: The Leaf Exercise
Step 1: Go to a local park or forest, pluck a leaf from
a tree, examine it closely, and savor its beauty.
Step 3: Pluck another leaf. Repeat the savoring process.
Notice how both leaves are unique – each with beauty
all its own.
Step 4: Look up at your tree. Reect on how each of its
leaves is just as real, beautiful, and unique as the two you
hold. (An average adult oak has about 250,000 leaves.)
4J. D. W. CLIFTON
Step 5: Look around you. Realize you are surrounded by
trees full of beautiful leaves.
Step 6: Imagine all the leaves that currently exist, from
Siberia to the Amazon. (There are currently over three
trillion adult trees spread over 60,000 species.)
Step 7: Imagine all the leaves that existed in ages past,
and will ever exist.
Step 8: Then ask yourself, what sort of world is this?
Conclusion
The goal of this paper was to introduce a new idea to
those in the positive psychology research community
and highlight the opportunity to conduct basic research
of some interdisciplinary importance to which those
who study PPIs are uniquely suited. To determine if
primals play anything like the central role envisioned,
the pressing need is to (a) test if the wellbeing impact of
established PPIs is mediated by primals and (b) create
and test new interventions that target primals. In short,
we must discover if the blogger is right. If it is dicult to
be happy in a world perceived as a sh**hole, we must
nd ways to counter that perception.
Note
1. Three main literatures have previously examined primals:
(a) I know of no eorts to change what political psychology
researchers have called Belief in a Dangerous World. (b)
Trauma researchers building on Jano-Bulman’s (1989)
paradigm have studied how trauma impacts several pri-
mals without as far as I am aware, seeking to alter them via
interventions. (c) The considerable experimental literature
concerning Belief in a Just World has been historically
focused on the Just-World Hypothesis – the motivational
theory rather than the individual dierence variable – and
primarily involved manipulations to temporarily alter the
belief’s salience and not the belief itself (Hafer & Bègue,
2005).
Disclosure statement
No potential conict of interest was reported by the author.
ORCID
Jeremy D. W. Clifton http://orcid.org/0000-0003-3185-3105
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THE JOURNAL OF POSITIVE PSYCHOLOGY 5
... Research findings suggest primals likely function as schemas (Clifton, 2020, June 24), partly because they are orthogonal to demographics (Clifton, 2020, July 7). For example, a survey of 524 Americans-50% women, 50% college graduates-between the ages of 18-75 (M = 37) revealed that family income doesn't correlate with either Abundant or Pleasurable primal beliefs. ...
... Similarly, people from high-income families did not have higher probabilities of having a more Pleasurable (r = 0.03 p > 0.05) world view and being from low-income families was not related to having a more miserable (r = -0.06 p > 0.05) perspective (Clifton, 2020, July 7). These data suggest preestablished conditions do not predict individual primal beliefs-meaning past experiences do not necessarily define the ways people think. ...
... While these data show promise in the predictive capability of primals, assessing the role of primals is still in its infancy, with more work needing to be done across psychological subdisciplines (Clifton, 2020, July 7). In sum, these data suggest there could be value in exposing parents to alternative ways of thinking about school-a major part of a young person's world-so they can consider the messages they share with their children. ...
Article
Decades of research have demonstrated that beliefs matter, driving people’s emotional responses and, in turn, their behaviors. The recent work of Clifton and colleagues (2019) has significantly advanced the understanding of world beliefs through the development of the primal world belief’s (primals) scale. Primals are highly correlated with personality and well-being variables. Evidence suggests they serve as a schematic lens influencing how people view their experiences of the world. Building on this research, this capstone examines the hidden biases influencing judgment when it comes to the messages parents share with their children about school. Taking a metacognitive approach, the potential for a parent’s beliefs about school to influence their children’s beliefs and, in turn, their children’s mastery are examined, and are considered in the context of mattering. It is possible that parent beliefs could create positive and negative spirals, influencing both student and community outcomes. For this reason, the primals scale was modified to measure (1) student beliefs about school (2) student perceptions of their parent’s beliefs about school and (3) student engagement. Data will be gathered and analyzed over this next year. A positive psychology intervention (PPI) was also created using the modified primals scale to gain a better understanding of the possible underlying mechanisms associated with beliefs and to potentially identify elements of causation. It was also developed to guide parents—alongside their children—to regularly savor the Good in schools. Intended to alter hidden biases and framing beliefs, it is expected to help parents and their children develop a broader base of resources and strategies for support. The intervention is targeted to improve beliefs about school, increase PERMA, and increase mattering, agency, and hope. This analysis suggests there may be opportunities for expanding the role of positive psychology in schools.
... Their research provided first evidence that the character strengths hope, gratitude, and curiosity correlate strongly with several primals, such as believing that the world is a good, enticing, and interesting place. Based on these and similar findings in the Big Five, Clifton (2020a) proposed that primals play an important role in personality development or can at least contribute to describing and predicting personality differences. This study seeks to extend Clifton and colleagues' (2019) research by investigating the relationships of primals with every character strength of Peterson and Seligman's (2004) VIA classification. ...
... Quite the opposite, the success of programs such as Beck's (e.g., Beck & Alford, 2009;Beck, 1967) cognitive therapy and Dweck and colleagues' (e.g., Dweck, 2017) growth mindset interventions suggests that primals can be changed by targeted intervention. Clifton (2020a) gives an example for one such intervention through what he calls 'Homeland Tourism'-developing the belief in a beautiful world by prompting participants to notice and remember the beauty surrounding their residence. As the belief in a beautiful world is embedded in that in a good world and believing in a good world is correlated with the character strength gratitude, this intervention should develop gratitude through building up a complementary belief system. ...
... Our study validates Clifton's (2020a) proposal that primals contribute to describing and predicting important personality differences, such as character strengths. If our results can be replicated and generalized, the next step would be testing whether primals also play an important role in personality development, as foretold by many contemporary theories (e.g., Dweck, 2017;Fleeson & Jayawickreme, 2015;Geukes et al., 2018). ...
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Primal world beliefs–primals–are a category of beliefs about the overall character of the world (e.g., the world is a safe place). Theory suggests that such beliefs drive personality development–or at least reflect personality differences, such as character strengths. We examined the relationships of primals with character strengths among 1122 German-speaking adults. The primary primal good explained the most variance in most character strengths, especially hope, spirituality, zest, gratitude, curiosity, and leadership. Including specific secondary (e.g., safe, enticing, alive) and tertiary primals (e.g., beautiful, needs me, funny) often yielded better predictions, but, with few exceptions, increments were typically smaller than that of the primary primal. We recommend including these primals in positive psychology interventions and describe three couplings of primals and character strengths that may prove especially fruitful for future research and practice.
... For example, one study of the psychological effects of the global financial crisis found that participants' depression was worse in the declining stage of the crisis than it was at its peak (Sargent-Cox et al., 2011). Further research should investigate this question and should aim to determine the causal direction of interactions between adversity, mental health, and primals (Clifton, 2020a;Clifton & Kim, 2020). Thus, the impact of the small changes in primal world beliefs observed here will depend on whether they stabilize, accumulate over time, or return to baseline after the pandemic. ...
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Introduction: People hold general beliefs about the world called primals (e.g., the world is Safe, Intentional), which are strongly linked to individual differences in personality, behavior, and mental health. How such beliefs form or change across the lifespan is largely unknown, although theory suggests that beliefs become more negative after disruptive events. The COVID-19 pandemic provided an opportunity to test whether dramatic world changes and personal adversity affect beliefs. Method: In a longitudinal, quasi-experimental, pre-registered design, 529 US participants (51% female, 76% White) provided ratings of primals before and several months after pandemic onset, and information about personal adversity (e.g., losing family, financial hardship). Data were compared to 398 participants without experience of the pandemic. Results: The average person in our sample showed no change in 23 of the 26 primals, including Safe, in response to the early pandemic, and only saw the world as slightly less Alive, Interactive, and Acceptable. Higher adversity, however, was associated with slight declines in some beliefs. One limitation is that participants were exclusively American. Conclusion: Primals were remarkably stable during the initial shock wrought by a once-in-a-century pandemic, supporting a view of primals as stable lenses through which people interpret the world.
... To explain primals-wellbeing covariance, researchers have noted that, consistent with current depression theory, schema theory, and the success of established interventions such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, much covariation is likely explained by primals influencing wellbeing (Beck, 1964(Beck, , 2005Butler et al., 2006;Clifton, 2020b;Hofmann et al., 2012;Janoff-Bulman, 1989;Stahlmann et al., 2020). Considerable covariance, however, might also be explained by primals being indicators or symptoms of outcome variables, not their cause. ...
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Primal world beliefs (‘primals’) are beliefs about the world’s basic character, such as the world is dangerous. This article investigates probabilistic assumptions about the value of negative primals (e.g., seeing the world as dangerous keeps me safe). We first show such assumptions are common. For example, among 185 parents, 53% preferred dangerous world beliefs for their children. We then searched for evidence consistent with these intuitions in 3 national samples and 3 local samples of undergraduates, immigrants (African and Korean), and professionals (car salespeople, lawyers, and cops;), examining correlations between primals and eight life outcomes within 48 occupations (total N=4,535) . As predicted, regardless of occupation, more negative primals were almost never associated with better outcomes. Instead, they predicted less success, less job and life satisfaction, worse health, dramatically less flourishing, more negative emotion, more depression, and increased suicide attempts. We discuss why assumptions about the value of negative primals are nevertheless widespread and implications for future research.
... To explain primals-wellbeing covariance, researchers have noted that, consistent with current depression theory, schema theory, and the success of established interventions such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, much covariation is likely explained by primals influencing wellbeing (Beck, 1964(Beck, , 2005Butler et al., 2006;Clifton, 2020b;Hofmann et al., 2012;Janoff-Bulman, 1989;Stahlmann et al., 2020). Considerable covariance, however, might also be explained by primals being indicators or symptoms of outcome variables, not their cause. ...
Preprint
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Primal world beliefs (‘primals’) are beliefs about the world’s basic character, such as the world is dangerous. This article investigates probabilistic assumptions about the value of negative primals. We first show that such assumptions are common. For example, among 185 parents, 53% preferred very dangerous to slightly dangerous world beliefs for their children. We then searched for evidence consistent with these intuitions in 3 national samples and 3 local samples of professionals (car salespeople, lawyers, and cops), undergraduates, and immigrants (African and Korean; total N=4,535), comparing within 48 occupations. As predicted, regardless of occupation, more negative primals were almost never associated with better outcomes. Instead, they predicted less success, less job and life satisfaction, worse health, dramatically less flourishing, more negative emotion, more depression, and increased suicide attempts. We discuss possible reasons why probabilistic assumptions about the value of negative primals are nevertheless widespread and implications for future research.
Preprint
Researchers have begun to explore a category of beliefs called primals which concern the basic character of the world as a whole. After discussing primals' general significance, this chapter recommends the Primals Inventory (PI-99) to those seeking to measure them. The PI-99 was created by the first effort to empirically map all major primals individuals hold. Item generation efforts included, for example, the analysis of 80,677 tweets, the 840 most-frequently used adjectives in modern English, and 385 of the most influential texts in world history. Factor analysis identified 26 latent dimensions, with most variance explained by three main primals-informally called the Big Three-the beliefs that the world is Safe (vs. dangerous), Enticing (vs. dull), and Alive (vs. mechanistic). In validation studies, PI-99 subscales were internally reliable (mean α = .86); stable across time (e.g., mean 19-month test-retest correlation for the Big Three was r (398) = .77); highly correlated with many behavioral patterns and wellbeing outcomes theoretically influenced by primals; and performed better than Big Five personality traits when predicting important variables like interpersonal trust and life satisfaction. This chapter will show how the PI-99 builds on a history of measuring similar beliefs, suggest ways to improve the PI-99, and make recommendations for those seeking to use the PI-99 in their research.
Article
If behavior is influenced by the perceived character of situations, many disciplines that study behavior may eventually need to take into account individual differences in the perceived character of the world. In the first effort to empirically map these perceptions, subjects varied on 26 dimensions, called primal world beliefs or primals, such as the belief that the world is abundant. This dissertation leverages the first comprehensive measure of primals to further discussions in political, developmental, clinical, and positive psychology. Chapter I challenges the consensus that political conservativism is distinguished by the belief that the world is dangerous. Results suggest previous research relied on a measure highlighting dangers conservatives fear and neglecting dangers liberals fear, when both perceive the world as almost equally dangerous (8 samples; total N=3,734). A novel account of political ideology is proposed based on more predictive primals. Chapter II discusses how primals might develop. The author distinguishes retrospective theories—where primals reflect the content of past experiences—from interpretive theories—where primals act as lenses for interpreting experiences while remaining uninfluenced by them—and suggests twelve ways each theory’s relative merit can be empirically tested. A novel comprehensive framework for considering experiences in relation to any new construct is also proposed. Chapter III explores primals’ wellbeing-related correlates. By showing that many parents aim to teach negative primals to their children, some prevalence for meta-beliefs (i.e., beliefs about beliefs) associating negative primals with positive outcomes is established. Study 2 tests these meta-beliefs in six samples (total N=4,535) in regards to eight outcomes: job success, job satisfaction, emotion, depression, suicide, physical health, life satisfaction, and flourishing. Results indicate that negative primals are almost always associated with modestly to dramatically worse outcomes, across and within professions. In addition to filling a literature gap, and establishing bases for future comparison studies, findings could be used to strengthen interventions by undermining counterproductive meta-beliefs. Findings also underscore the urgent need for further research on the impact of primal world beliefs—teaching children or anyone that the world is a bad place in order to protect or prepare them may be ill-advised.
Thesis
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If behavior is influenced by the perceived character of situations, many disciplines that study behavior may eventually need to take into account individual differences in the perceived character of the world. In the first effort to empirically map these perceptions, subjects varied on 26 dimensions, called primal world beliefs or primals, such as the belief that the world is abundant. This dissertation leverages the first comprehensive measure of primals to further discussions in political, developmental, clinical, and positive psychology. Chapter I challenges the consensus that political conservativism is distinguished by the belief that the world is dangerous. Results suggest previous research relied on a measure highlighting dangers conservatives fear and neglecting dangers liberals fear, when both perceive the world as almost equally dangerous (8 samples; total N=3,734). A novel account of political ideology is proposed based on more predictive primals. Chapter II discusses how primals might develop. The author distinguishes retrospective theories—where primals reflect the content of past experiences—from interpretive theories—where primals act as lenses for interpreting experiences while remaining uninfluenced by them—and suggests twelve ways each theory’s relative merit can be empirically tested. A novel comprehensive framework for considering experiences in relation to any new construct is also proposed. Chapter III explores primals’ wellbeing-related correlates. By showing that many parents aim to teach negative primals to their children, some prevalence for meta-beliefs (i.e., beliefs about beliefs) associating negative primals with positive outcomes is established. Study 2 tests these meta-beliefs in six samples (total N=4,535) in regards to eight outcomes: job success, job satisfaction, emotion, depression, suicide, physical health, life satisfaction, and flourishing. Results indicate that negative primals are almost always associated with modestly to dramatically worse outcomes, across and within professions. In addition to filling a literature gap, and establishing bases for future comparison studies, findings could be used to strengthen interventions by undermining counterproductive meta-beliefs. Findings also underscore the urgent need for further research on the impact of primal world beliefs—teaching children or anyone that the world is a bad place in order to protect or prepare them may be ill-advised.
Chapter
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Gratitude is highly prized. A small sampling of quotes reveals the power and potential of this virtue. “Whatever you are in search of – peace of mind, prosperity, health, love – it is waiting for you if only you are willing to receive it with an open and grateful heart,” writes Sarah Breathnach in the Simple abundance journal of gratitude. Elsewhere she refers to gratitude as “the most passionate transformative force in the cosmos.” Another popular treatment of the topic refers to it as “one of the most empowering, healing, dynamic instruments of consciousness vital to demonstrating the life experiences one desires” (Richelieu, 1996). Lock and key metaphors are especially common; gratitude has been referred to as “the key that opens all doors,” that which “unlocks the fullness of life,” and the “key to abundance, prosperity, and fulfillment” (Emmons & Hill, 2001; Hay, 1996). How do these extraordinary claims regarding the power and promise of gratitude fare when scientific lights are shone on them? Can gratitude live up to its billing? In this chapter we review the growing body of work on gratitude and wellbeing, explore mechanisms by which gratitude interventions elevate well-being, and close by presenting what we consider important issues for the next generation of gratitude intervention studies to address.
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Do negative primal world beliefs reflect experiences such as trauma, crime, or low socio-economic status? Clifton and colleagues recently suggested that primals—defined as beliefs about the general character of the world as a whole, such as the belief that the world is safe (vs. dangerous) and abundant (vs. barren)—may shape many of the most-studied variables in psychology. Yet researchers do not yet know why individuals adopt their primals nor the role of experience in shaping primals. Many theories can be called retrospective theories; these theories suggest that past experiences lead to the adoption of primals that reflect those experiences. For example, trauma increases the belief that the world is dangerous and growing up poor increases the belief that the world is barren. Alternatively, interpretive theories hold that primals function primarily as lenses on experiences while being themselves largely unaffected by them. This article identifies twelve empirical tests where each theory makes different predictions and hypothesizes that retrospective theories are typically less accurate than interpretive theories. I end noting that, even if retrospective theories are typically inaccurate, that does not imply experiences do not shape primals. I end by offering a conceptual architecture—the Cube Framework—for exploring the full range of human experience and suggest that, though psychologists have historically focused on negative, externally imposed experiences of short-duration (e.g., trauma), positive, internally driven, and longer-term experiences are also worth considering.
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Beck’s insight—that beliefs about one’s self, future, and environment shape behavior—transformed depression treatment. Yet environment beliefs remain relatively understudied. We introduce a set of environment beliefs— primal world beliefs or primals —that concern the world’s overall character (e.g., the world is interesting, the world is dangerous ). To create a measure, we systematically identified candidate primals (e.g., analyzing tweets, historical texts, etc.); conducted exploratory factor analysis ( N = 930) and two confirmatory factor analyses ( N = 524; N = 529); examined sequence effects ( N = 219) and concurrent validity ( N = 122); and conducted test-retests over 2 weeks ( n = 122), 9 months ( n = 134), and 19 months (n = 398). The resulting 99-item Primals Inventory (PI-99) measures 26 primals with three overarching beliefs— Safe, Enticing , and Alive (mean α = .93)—that typically explain ∼55% of the common variance. These beliefs were normally distributed; stable (2 weeks, 9 months, and 19 month test-retest results averaged .88, .75, and .77, respectively); strongly correlated with many personality and wellbeing variables (e.g., Safe and optimism, r = .61; Enticing and depression, r = −.52; Alive and meaning, r = .54); and explained more variance in life satisfaction, transcendent experience, trust, and gratitude than the BIG 5 (3%, 3%, 6%, and 12% more variance, respectively). In sum, the PI-99 showed strong psychometric characteristics, primals plausibly shape many personality and wellbeing variables, and a broad research effort examining these relationships is warranted.
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Work on the psychological aftermath of traumatic events suggests that people ordinarily operate on the basis of unchallenged, unquestioned assumptions about themselves and the world. A heuristic model specifying the content of people's assumptive worlds is proposed. The schema construct in social cognition is used to explore the role of these basic assumptions following traumatic events. A major coping task confronting victims is a cognitive one, that of assimilating their experience and/or changing their basic schemas about themselves and their world. Various seemingly inappropriate coping strategies, including self-blame, denial, and intrusive, recurrent thoughts, are discussed from the perspective of facilitating the victim's cognitive coping task. A scale for measuring basic assumptions is presented, as is a study comparing the assumptive worlds of people who did or did not experience particular traumatic events in the past. Results showed that assumptions about the benevolence of the impersonal world, chance, and self-worth differed across the two populations. Findings suggest that people's assumptive worlds are affected by traumatic events, and the impact on basic assumptions is still apparent years after the negative event. Further research directions suggested by work on schemas are briefly discussed.
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