Jer Clifton is a psychology researcher in the School of Arts & Sciences who studies people’s most fundamental beliefs about the world. He’s also a father to a 3-year-old girl; 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 his daughter’s favorites. The 2010 animated film revisits the Rapunzel story, telling the tale of a girl trapped in a tower by an evil witch. To dissuade her from escaping, the witch convinces young Rapunzel that the outside world is a dangerous place, full of obstacles and enemies. When Rapunzel finally flees her tower, she’s scared at first. But as she overcomes the challenges in her way, she starts to realize the world outside 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 fundamental beliefs people hold about the world shape their behavior and well-being. Clifton calls these beliefs primal world beliefs, or “primals” for short. Rapunzel’s tale exemplifies one of these primals: the belief that the world is a safe (or a dangerous) place.
Clifton predicts that primal world beliefs like these hold a key to understanding many outcomes psychologists study, from personality to political leanings. And, along with colleagues at Penn’s Positive Psychology Center, he’s leading research that shifts psychology’s focus from behavior to beliefs, while developing tools to help everyone understand what their primal world beliefs are and what they mean.
A lifelong project
Clifton’s fascination with how people view the world started at a young age. The child of Baptist missionaries in Taiwan and Hong Kong, he grew up deeply religious. When he struggled with a stutter, he took it as a sign that his purpose in life was to write a book. So as an undergraduate studying philosophy at Houghton College, he began writing his first manuscript, a philosophical proof that the world, he says, “had to be objectively a wondrous place to exist at all.”
But even though he had constructed a solid philosophical argument supporting a view of the world as a beautiful and captivating place, he wasn’t sure if he believed it himself. To break through his own cognitive dissonance, “I started to write down five new, beautiful things each day that I saw,” says Clifton. As he continued the practice and shifted his attention towards finding beauty in his daily life, he began to feel the world was objectively good, he says. “My well-being shot up.”
Wondering how a shift in world view could so drastically alter his mood, Clifton turned to psychology. Under the guidance of Martin Seligman, Zellerbach Family Professor of Psychology and director of the Penn Positive Psychology Center, Clifton began to empirically study beliefs about the world. While prior research had examined single, isolated beliefs—such as the belief that the world is a just place—there had been no systematic attempt to empirically determine the major beliefs humans held 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 historically influential novels, speeches, religious texts, and films; analyzed more than 80,000 tweets that contained phrases like “the world is …” or “life is …”; and discussed world views with religious and academic thought leaders to “capture every broad claim about the world,” says Clifton.
As he and his colleagues collected statements like the Buddha’s assertion that “life is suffering,” or King Solomon’s declaration that “everything is meaningless,” they began to reveal recurring sentiments about the world. They then used these statements to create hundreds of items, administered those to thousands of participants, and discovered statistically the replicable dimensions underlying these different ways of looking at the world.
How primals shape who we are
Clifton and his colleagues found that all of the sentiments they analyzed fit into 26 distinct categories, which they outlined in a foundational 2019 paper. Those categories can generally be organized into three dimensions that form the most important primals: the world is safe (or dangerous), the world is enticing (or dull), and the world is alive (or mechanistic). These are not binary beliefs, but continuums with many shades. Where people’s beliefs land on these continuums, says Clifton, determines whether they see the world overall as a good or a bad place.
Where we fall on the spectrum of these primal world beliefs, says Clifton, is “massively predictive of how we live our lives and the sort of well-being that we experience.” The research of the Penn Primals Project supports this notion; a 2021 study showed that many parents purposefully aim to instill in their children negative primal world beliefs, especially the belief the world is a dangerous place, assuming that seeing the world as dangerous is tied to health, happiness, and success. But the truth is that those who see the world as dangerous are less likely to succeed, tend to have worse health, and experience depression at a higher rate. Likewise, a study published this month suggests that certain primals, including the belief that the world is hierarchical and the world is just, are linked to political beliefs.
The Penn Primals Project is a dedicated research hub for primal world beliefs, but scholarship on primals has already extended outside of the University. David Yaden of Johns Hopkins University, who also completed his doctoral training with Seligman, is utilizing primals on the frontiers of psychology, studying how psilocybin influences beliefs about the world. Primals have even worked their way into the world of robotics, where Bilge Mutlu of the University of Wisconsin-Madison is exploring 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 any person falls on the spectrum of primals, he hopes that these metrics will provide an opportunity for 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 for them—the Penn Primals Project currently offers three online surveys. Their 99-question survey measures all 26 primal world beliefs, a condensed 18-question survey, and a 6-question survey. Each survey provides comparisons to a larger sample of Americans, so people can see how their beliefs stack up to others.
Understanding your own primal beliefs, says Clifton, is “a chance for all of us to reflect and to take perspective—because the beginning of empathy is seeing what the world looks like from another person's perspective.”