Are You Living In The Self-Made Prison Of Your Primal World Beliefs?

Psychologist Jeremy Clifton describes how our perspective on the world dictates the way we engage with it.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | June 11, 2022

A new study published in The Journal of Positive Psychology explains how the protective impulse which prompts parents to teach their children that the world is a dangerous place might ultimately hurt them in the future.

I recently spoke to psychologist Jeremy Clifton of the University of Pennsylvania to understand how cultivating this preemptive 'primal world belief' might backfire for our kids. Here is a summary of our conversation.

What is a 'primal'?

"Primal" is short for "primal world belief."

In psychology research, a belief is not some formal creed or anything like that, but just anything one thinks to be true, such as "I look good in hats."

A "world belief" is a belief about a place, but in this case that place happens to be the world, as one very big place.

Finally "primal world beliefs" are not beliefs about accidental world qualities such as "the world is composed of 118 chemical elements"; but the world's most basic and psychologically important characteristics, like how dangerous it is, how fun it is, how stable it is, and so forth.

So, in short, primals are our most basic beliefs about the world.

What are the "Big 3" primals?

A team of researchers at the University of Pennsylvania spent five years doing extensive research looking at numerous possible primal world beliefs humans hold — looking through millions of tweets, historical texts, and so forth.

We then conducted empirical studies to find what primal world beliefs were statistically distinct from each other.

Turns out humans have over two dozen primals. However, most cluster into three main (i.e., "Big 3") primal world beliefs. The belief the world is:

  1. Safe (vs. dangerous)
  2. Enticing (vs. dull), and
  3. Alive (vs.mechanistic)

Safe world belief is what it sounds like: to what extent do you think the world is full of threats?

Enticing world belief is about cognitive engagement: is the world a place full of interesting, beautiful, meaningful, and funny things, or not so much?

Alive world belief is the belief the world is full of intention that is interacting with you and needs your help with something important.

Why are primal world beliefs essential to the human condition?

Try and remember a time you were in a place you hated.

For me, I remember being at a party once where everyone was drunker than me and not in a fun way, the music was too loud, the people were shallow, and I was bored. I made little effort to engage. I was unhappy.

Psychologists also know that our beliefs about a place are used to fill-in-the gaps in a situation, so we interpret ambiguity based on what we think that place is typically like.

At that party, for example, I assumed the people around me were idiots.

Now, imagine being stuck somewhere you hated your whole life: How would you think? How would you feel? What would you expect of the people around you?

Those of us who see the world as dangerous, dull, and mechanistic are stuck in a place they hate their whole lives.

Primals matter because they are not just the most psychologically impactful beliefs one can have about a place, but that place is also a place nobody ever gets to leave.

The downstream effects on behavior and well-being are potentially enormous.

How does a primal relate to the mental and physical well-being of an individual?

Positive primals are correlated to tons of good outcomes, like professional success, physical health, being less at risk of suicide, being less depressed, and overall psychological well-being.

However, some correlations are small and some are not.

Most of the studies you see in the news on, say, how red wine is good for you, are nonsense simply because the correlation is detectable sure, but very small.

But the correlations between seeing the world as Enticing, for example, and well-being are huge.

One of the really big correlations in nature is between distance from the equator (latitude) and surface temperature.

The correlation between well-being and Enticing is about the same size.

Could these correlations be only correlations? Do we know causation?

Primals is a new area of study for empirical researchers, so we don't have good evidence yet of causation.

However, the most evidence-based form of psychotherapy (and most widely used) is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, and it's based on the idea that beliefs very much like this change behaviors and well-being all the time.

So, even though we don't have primals-specific data yet, most researchers are expecting primals to play a causal role to an important degree (especially given correlations this big), but how big remains to be seen.

Couldn't negative primals be the result of just having a bad life? Maybe, for example, people who see the world as dangerous are people who actually live in dangerous areas?

We had that same question and I'm happy to say we have an answer: not really.

Primal world beliefs are fascinating for researchers because they tell us almost nothing about someone's background (counterintuitively).

There are, for example, tons of people in the safest neighborhoods in the world who see the world as dangerous, and tons of people in the most dangerous neighborhoods who see the world as safe.

This is exciting, because it means that our past does not determine our primals. Most humans seem to be free to pick the primals they want to believe.

You just published a study on the primals that parents want to pass on to their kids. What did you find?

We found that people want to pass on a lot of different primal world beliefs to their kids, including a lot of negative beliefs, especially the belief the world is dangerous and against them, and that may be a terrible idea.

It really has made me think about how we are raising our daughter.

From a psychological standpoint, why would any parent think that instilling a negative worldview is ultimately beneficial for their children?

Because they love them!

People who think the world is a terrible place genuinely believe it. They tend to think their negative beliefs protect them from disappointment and danger, make them better at their jobs, and make them care more about helping to solve the world's problems.

Could they be right?

We need more research, but what we have so far suggests probably not.

For example, if there is any profession where seeing the world as dangerous might be helpful it's probably law enforcement, but people in law enforcement who saw the world as more dangerous (in our limited samples) were actually slightly worse at their jobs and had much lower well-being.

Previous studies have shown too that people who tend to see the world as dangerous overreact to threats and see threats that aren't there.

What advice do you have for parents? What advice would you have for a person who might be struggling to live up to their full potential because of a negative primal?

A sage once said, "The first step to getting out of prison is to recognize you're in prison."

My advice for anyone interested in primal world beliefs and how they might be impacting their life or the life of their kids is to find out what their primals are.

Go to Take the survey. Get your free report. If you decide you want to try changing one of your primals, there's some advice in the report about steps you might want to take.

If you decide you are happy with your primals as they are. Good for you. Simply being aware of them and how they might be different from those around you can do enormous good.

In fact, we are developing workshops for spouses and organizational leaders to discuss their different primal world beliefs.

Why are you doing this research? What makes you tick personally?

I'm a professional nerd and I love it, but the real reason I'm doing all this research is that I believe there are millions of people trapped inside of perspectives they don't even know they have that are hurting themselves and their loved ones. It gives me a sense of urgency. Everyday.