The Way You View The World Might Just Be Your Superpower

Psychologist Alexander Stahlmann explains how your good qualities can be a result of your worldview.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | June 14, 2022

A new study published in The Journal of Positive Psychology highlights that people with pronounced character strengths like hope, gratitude, and curiosity usually have a positive primal worldview, i.e., they view the world as a safe, enticing, and purposeful place.

I recently spoke to psychologist Alexander Stahlmann of the University of Zurich to better understand this correlation. Here is a summary of our conversation.

Could you tell us what constitutes a worldview or a 'primal’? Why is it relevant to the field of psychology?

Primal world beliefs (primals for short) are a category of beliefs about the overall character of the world (e.g., the world is a safe place).

Recent theories have hypothesized that such beliefs are catalysts of personality differences and development; that primals can help us understand why humans differ or change in their attitudes, emotional dispositions, and typical behaviors.

However, until recently, we lacked the language to describe and differentiate these beliefs. Fortunately, we now have Jer Clifton and colleagues' primals category, which allows us to work with nearly 30 different worldviews, all of which can be reliably found in spoken and written records from all over the world.

Primals research is just starting to gain momentum, but it bears the potential to help us better understand, and maybe steer, personality development.

Could you walk us through the primary, secondary, and tertiary primal classification? What would be a classic example to illustrate this division?

Primals are organized in a hierarchical model, meaning that we assume humans think about the world in different grades of abstraction.

The most abstract or general primal is the belief in a good (vs. bad) world — believing that the world is a delightful place, that is beautiful, interesting, harmless, abundant, full of meaning, improvable, and getting better and better.

This belief is called the primary primal. Then, there are a handful of secondary primals that we can think of as feeding into the primary primal, such as believing in:

  1. a safe (vs. dangerous) world,
  2. an enticing (vs. dull) world, and
  3. a world that is alive (vs. mechanistic)

In other words, believing that the world is a safe, enticing, and alive place constitutes the belief in a good world.

Finally, there are more than 20 tertiary primals, most of which, in turn, feed into the secondary primals and the primary primal by extension, such as believing in a world that is regenerative (vs. degenerative), stable (vs. fragile), and just (vs. unjust).

Your research suggests that one's worldview is one of the primary building blocks of their personality. Could you explain why?

Aaron Beck’s cognitive or primary triad lists a negative view of the world as one of the main characteristics of depression.

If we accept that viewing the world in a particular way contributes to sustaining a mental disorder, we must assume that worldviews sensibly affect how individuals think, feel, and act. Therefore, recent theories have placed worldviews, including primals, at the center of our understanding of personality differences and development.

For example, Carol Dweck's BEATs theory sees personality as a characteristic way of fulfilling basic needs given the beliefs, emotions, and action tendencies that emerged from previous experience.

So, compassion and kindness would be characteristic ways to fulfill the needs for acceptance and status in a world perceived as harmless, cooperative, and just — a good world.

On the other hand, we would see people who believe in a bad world develop traits that they deem more appropriate when they think that the world is governed by competition, hierarchies, and injustice — such as assertiveness and dominance.

Our study lays the groundwork for experimental studies that will test whether primals truly deserve the special place foretold by those theories.

How did you design the methodology of your study? What would you say was your most important finding?

Our cross-sectional study used standardized questionnaires to inquire about one thousand one hundred German-speaking adults about their primals and Peterson and Seligman's character strengths (e.g., kindness, valor, hope).

Then, we used regression models to identify which primals co-occurred most often with which character strengths. Knowing these relationships is important because it will allow us to design positive psychology interventions that may develop character strengths by developing their corresponding primals.

Our results show that most character strengths are more pronounced among people who believe in a good world, especially:

If the above theories hold, this will make believing in a good world a prerequisite for developing character strengths — becoming more hopeful, enthusiastic, and appreciative would hinge on seeing the world as a more beautiful, interesting, and harmless place (among others).

However, it is beyond our study to validate this claim; future studies that test this hypothesis using experimental designs are needed.

Is it possible for someone to develop character strengths through a primarily negative worldview?

Based on our results, developing character strengths through a primarily negative worldview, such as believing in a bad world, should be rather unlikely.

We cannot rule out that there are people who develop character strengths to counteract negative worldviews (e.g., "the world is a bad place, so I have to be hopeful in order to get by").

However, our findings show clearly that the usual way involves positive worldviews. Our results align with another recent study by Jer Clifton and Peter Meindl, who showed that teaching children to believe in a bad world does not help them but instead evokes less life and job satisfaction, more depression, and increased suicide attempts.

At the moment, the available evidence suggests that we should focus on building positive (although realistic) beliefs about the world to develop a healthy personality.

What advice would you have for someone looking to change their primal worldview in a positive way?

We are just taking the first steps toward developing a training scheme to change primals in a positive and sustainable way.

However, those interested in changing their primals may try out Jer Clifton's "Homeland Tourism" intervention.

The basic idea is that everybody can see some degree of beauty in the world (an important tertiary primal for believing in a good world), but some may believe that this beauty is confined to treasured places or memories.

Developing primals means gradually extending these confined beliefs to the whole world. This development may be achieved through anything that helps people realize that beauty is all around them and always has been there, no matter the historical period or what the future may hold. So, reading travel blogs, learning from people from other cultures, or studying historical accounts may be good ideas for starters.

Jer Clifton's homepage is also an excellent address to keep in touch with primals research, so people interested in changing their primals may drop in from time to time to see where the training scheme currently stands (see

Do you have plans for follow-up research? Where do you hope the research on this topic goes in the future?

First, future research may investigate whether established interventions — such as Three Good Things, Counting Blessings, and Gratitude Visit — change personality and well-being through changing primals.

This could involve administering such interventions and measuring the relevant primals identified in this study before and after.

For example, if becoming more hopeful was mediated by seeing the world as a good place, we could infer that these primals drive this development.

Second, future research may choose to develop new interventions that directly target the primals found most important in predicting specific character strengths.

This could involve developing interventions that either attempt to change primals to change behaviors ('top-down’) or training specific behaviors to change primals by extension ('bottom-up’).

Again, if partaking in some combination of these interventions would elicit changes in character strengths, we could infer that this primal, or at least its superordinate secondary and primary primals, drive this development.

We hope that our research animates such and other attempts to test whether and how primals can be used to better help people develop their character strengths.