Psychologists have found a whole bunch of behaviors that are good for you, like staying positive and being persistent. Understandably, many people then pursue those behaviors passionately. “Be positive!” we say. “Keep at it!” we shout. But, like a many New Year’s resolutions, these efforts, these sheer acts of will, fail to produce long term results. Underlying and unaddressed reasons why you didn’t act that way before re-assert themselves. So how do we change the underlying stuff? Big time psychologists Ellis (Ellis & Ellis, 2011) and Beck (Beck & Weishaar, 1989) argued that emotions and behaviors are driven by a puppet-master behind the scenes: beliefs. Therefore, a key to happiness might be having certain beliefs that effortlessly fuel these positive behaviors across a lifetime. A type of these beliefs are universal assessments, and I focus on them.
Universal assessments (or UAs) are judgements about the universe as a whole. They may not be explicitly recognized, but, so my theory goes, they express themselves through words and behaviors. For example, Joe Biden, speaking at my graduation this summer at Penn, encouraged us to participate in the world and said repeatedly that the world is “open and full of possibilities.” This is a UA that Joe believes should inspire certain behaviors. As another example, here is the chorus and 2nd verse of It’s a Dangerous World by folk musician Bill Morrisey (1991).
There’s nothing you can say
That could get me up today
Nothing you have ever said
That can drive me from this bed
You can call me lazy, crazy
Call me stupid I don’t care
I ain’t getting up
It’s dangerous out there.
There’s a hunter from New Jersey
In my kitchen drinking beer
There’s a Texan out my window
With a chain saw and a leer
I can take a walk around the block
To shake me from my slumber
But there’s student drivers out today
And one has got my number
This is a perfect example of how a specific UA (the world is dangerous) is causing specific behaviors (staying in bed).
UAs are one component of worldview. Worldview is a set of assumptions, beliefs, and values that one uses to interpret life and make sense of the world. In my thesis, I briefly trace the development of the concept of worldview (or Weltanschauung in German), from its beginnings with Kant to its domination of intellectual life in the 20th century. Big-time philosophers agree (like Humboldt, Hegel, Fichte, Emerson, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Dilthey, Husserl, Hiedeggar, etc.): worldview matters. Chesterton thought that “the most practical and important thing about a man is his view of the universe” (Introduction to Heretics). William James thought that worldview is the most “interesting and important thing about you” (Introduction to Lowell Lectures).
By the 20th century, the power of worldview thinking had spread to other disciplines. I note three powerful examples: Max Weber applied worldview-thinking to socioeconomics in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1921/1958), Thomas Kuhn to scientific development in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962/1996), and Adolf Hitler to power politics in Mein Kampf (1925/1999).
Worldviews, and the beliefs that form them, are schemas. Schemas are an important notion in psychology which developed in this world dominated by Weltanschauung thinking. Schemas are defined as mental representations of objects and processes that generate expectancy. For instance, if I am narrating a story about a conversation in a Manhattan apartment, and then mention that a bengal tiger jumps out of a bamboo thicket and kills the speaker, you will grow annoyed with the story. Your schema of Manhattan apartments likely does not include tigers or bamboo thickets. It’s just not realistic.
Schemas define what is and is not ‘realistic’ — in art, movies, and in the real world too.
We have schemas about everything from human faces to Manhattan apartments to water bottles. We expect them to function in certain ways. Numerous studies have shown that (beware of a useful oversimplification here) we tend to ignore things that go against our schemas. For example, if one has a schema that poor people are incompetent, we will tend to ignore data that supports competence and highlight data that shows incompetence.
UAs, as schemas, are powerful because they generate expectancy. This affects how we interpret and learn new data AND also affects how we interpret and remember our past. Psychologists believe that memory bears little resemblance to data-retrieval. Instead, ‘remembering’ is an active process in which we use bits of information to piece together what we think should be true, a process which is shepherded by schemas. UAs, therefore, are prime candidates to play a big role in human life by creating expectations about everything we taste, touch, see, feel, and hear in this universe.
I identify at least four types of UAs, with potentially dozens of each type. I base this typology on Jaspers distinction in Psychology of Worldview (1919).
- Universal Characteristic Assessment (world picture)- What qualities does the universe have in and of itself? For example, is the world characterized by dynamic change or rigidness?
- Universal Policy Assessment (attitude) – What attitudes or policies do I adopt in dealing with the world? For example, is the world best experienced alone or with others? Universal Policy assessments are of two types: our policies towards the universe and what we percieve to be the universe’s policies towards us (e.g., the world is out to get me).
- Universal Meta-Assessment – These are the BIG paradigmatic assessments which take into account everything we think or feel about the universe and sums it all up–an “assessment of assessments.” Universal Meta-Assessments were what I was talking about in my last post: Is my wife good, and does it matter? There are at least four UMAs: 1) Is the world good? 2) Is the world worth existing? 3) Do I like the world? 4) Do I say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to the universe?
However, only three UAs have been identified and studied by researchers.
- Is the world just or unjust? This UA is called BJW (belief in a just world) and is about whether one believes that the universe is a place where people get what they deserve and deserve what they get.
- Is the world safe or unsafe?
- Is the world meaningful or meaningless?
There are three big takeaways from this list. First, three is very few (after all, there are at least four categories to fill!). Secondly, research indicates that all three play a very important role in human life (not an overstatement). For example, good data has tied BJW to better mental health, more positive emotions, optimism, less suspicion towards others, less depression, less loneliness, more kindness, more kindness when under stress, more productivity in the workplace, and more loyalty to one’s work place. At the same time, BJW causes people to blame victims for being victimized! BJW has been tied to prejudice towards the unemployed, those with AIDS, the elderly, and the poor. Thirdly, all three of these UAs are negative in orientation. Universal safety and universal meaningfulness, for example, were identified by Janoff-Bullman (1992), a trauma specialist, and have been studied exclusively in the context of trauma and depression. Rape, for example, can destroy a belief that the world is a fundamentally safe place. Many therapists feel that they must restore this belief before the person can “move on.”
I applaud all this work on trauma and depression. However, in addition to the question, “What UAs are essential for staying sane?” we might ask, “What UAs are essential for building the ‘good life?'” As far as we know, I am the first to do so, which puts me firmly in the vein of positive psychology. Positive psychology assumes that strengths and positive emotions are not merely the absence of the negative. For example, joy is not the result of a simple lack of sadness and hope is not the mere absence of fear. Rather, both the positive and the negative can be present in abundance, or both can be absent. Moreover, each strength and weakness, each negative emotion and positive emotion, has a unique physiological signature that does not simply mirror its “opposite.” In other words, strengths and positive emotions deserve study in their own right because they have their own qualities.
So, I conducted a conceptual analysis–an exercise in hypothesis generation–designed to identify major UAs which might contribute to the ‘good life.’ It involved a methodical process which identified relevant UAs and cross-referenced them with each strength and positive emotion that has been identified by positive psychologists. In the end, I examined (and re-examined) 884 possible connections between UAs and the ‘good life’ and 13 major UAs emerged which may help humans live particularly happy and fulfilled lives:
- Is the world good or bad? Thinking that the world is good and having a gut-level positive response was the single most relevant UA I identified. It pays to have a little crush on existence.
- Is the universe interesting or boring? It’s hard to imagine developing strengths like “love of learning” and “curiosity” without a strong belief in universal interestingness.
- Is the universe beautiful or ugly? My wife’s top strength is “appreciation of beauty and excellence.” Why would she or anyone stop to savor (which research says is good for you) the roses if one does not expect roses, or much else, to be worth savoring.
- Can the universe change or can’t it? My good friend Eric is remarkably politically informed AND remarkably politically apathetic. I think he imbibes the notion that nothing really changes in this world. This UA may separate “believers” and those who are at their heart grumpy old men.
- Is the universe is getting better or getting worse? We know stories matter. What is the story you tell over the universe? Where are we going? How will this all end? I think religion can play a big role in all of these, but especially this one.
- Is the world safe or dangerous? A sense of danger causes you to scan the horizon for threats while a sense of safety is a prerequisite to feeling good and being open to new things and new ways of thinking.
- Is the universe to be explored or avoided? Of course, we cannot avoid the world completely, but we can try to stay away from it as much as we can. Alternatively, we could pursue immersion, novelty, and new experiences.
- Is the universe comprehensible or incomprehensible? Why should I try to understand the world if I have no chance of doing so?
- Am I at the center of the universe or not? If I do not get a job I apply for, does that mean that there is something wrong with me? Maybe, but someone who thinks that they are the center of the universe will tend to think it is definitely their fault somehow. Being at the center of the universe means that you are always in the right place at the right time for credit and blame.
- Is the universe intentional or mindless? Is there a mind behind the scenes orchestrating events, or is it random? This mind might be Jesus, superstition, fate, Karma, etc. An example of this UA might be, “the world is out to get me.
- Is the universe best experienced alone or with others? If the world is a war zone, we need buddies in our bunker. If the world is a paradise, we need playmates.
- Is the universe as it should be, or should it change? When we approach something new, do we assume that there is a reason for it being the way it is and it likely needs to be accepted, or is there little reason for it being the way it is and should we prepare ourselves to change it? This might be at the core of conservative and liberal tendencies. This is the only UA continuum that did not have an obviously “better” choice.
- Is the universe just or unjust? Strengths like prudence and self-regulation would be difficult to come by if one did not beleive that his or her actions affected outcomes.
Some UAs relevant to the miserable life are on this list, some are not, and several of them (like the world is beautiful) seem very unlikely to have emerged without a focus on the ‘good life.’ Also, like BJW, most of these UAs had positive and negative connotations. For example, thinking the world is good might be tied to 32 strengths and positive emotions but thinking that the world is bad still might be tied to 16. Still, in almost all cases, there was a clear candidate for a UA that was much better for you than the other. In other words, if Jack thinks that the world is good, interesting, beautiful, changeable, safe, comprehensible, just, intentional, to be explored, not centered on him, best experienced with others, and getting better, he is much more likely to have a good life than Jill, who thinks the world is bad, boring, ugly, dangerous, incomprehensible, unjust, can’t be changed, is centered around her, is best experienced alone, and is getting worse. That’s my hypothesis anyway. Each of these UAs require empirical research as all this is based on little more than my own thinking. Psychometrically valid assessment tools have to be created, results have to be correlated with life outcomes, etc.
James Pawelski, my thesis advisor, is very excited by the new and important realms of research my work has identified. He has strongly encouraged me to pursue running a UA-research lab. Ultimately this would address a series of nine empirical questions:
- What universal assessments do people actually hold, who holds them, and what do the distributions look like?
- How are they held (implicitly or explicitly, compulsorily or freely, strongly or weakly, etc.)?
- Can certain UAs be tied to specific life outcomes, such as depression, divorce, subjective well-being, longevity, health, strengths, or even travel habits?
- What is the causal relationship between UAs and life outcomes?
- Which UAs are most likely to make people happy and fulfilled in life?
- Where do UAs come from, and at what age are they typically formed?
- Can UAs change?
- Can interventions be developed which change UAs into those most likely to bring happiness?
- Can these interventions be administered at scale (quickly and inefficiently to lots of people)?
In other words, I am interested in changing the world by examining and then potentially changing our beliefs about it. If interested, all 157 pages of the thesis are posted here on Scholarly Commons. About 30 pages are references, 60 are appendices, and 60 is the paper itself.
In the near term, I am creating a real world UA-bank, and I need your help. There is great need to create a well-thought out and respected list of UAs that can catalyze independent UA-research. In order to do that, in addition to researchers and resources, we need popular help finding and identifying UAs that people actually believe in the real world. Please be on the lookout for UAs that you come across, like the Calvin & Hobbes comic above, and send them to me. I just got this one from a friend: “One of my mother’s favorite sayings was, ‘I can’t see why not!'” This UA, specifically a universal policy assessment, is about saying ‘yes’ to the universe. Creating and analyzing a vast real world UA-bank is the only way to identify every UA that plays an important role in human life. I invite you to be a part of this project. Thank you!
Many people contributed to the success of my Masters thesis. I want to thank Bob Easton, Andrew Soren, David Yaden, Dan Lerner, Karen Warner, Bit Smith, Paul Giacomini, Marty Seligman, Kevin Lum, Brandon Allen, Clinton Montgomery, Kiran Thadhani, Hannah Lythe, Chris Major, Christa Fritner, Dan Tomasulo, Johannes Eichstaed, Amy Walker, and Judy Saltzberg-Levick, for your support and contributions to this capstone. Also, two people need special appreciation for the enormous help they provided. First, James Pawelski worked tirelessly on my behalf and continues to be my great advocate and supporter. He read my work carefully and offered thoughtful insight. On the basis of an epic three and a half hour phone conversation, I scraped a very solid draft and created an excellent one. He was the one who initially directed me towards schemas and towards Weltanschauung philosophy. He helped me find my voice as a promising and serious academic instead of what he hilariously identified as “a brilliant yet over-reaching undergraduate philosophy student” (the man understands me! : ) ). Thank you so much, James!
Finally, I want to thank my wife, Alicia, for her support and shaping of the project itself. For six weeks this summer, Alicia lived with a zombie as I neglected all my relationships, my health, and other projects to focus 100% on this thesis. I did not leave my nearly windowless basement apartment. I ate when I was hungry, went to sleep when I was tired, and skipped a few days in the process (my body seems to like 30-hour cycles). I often went for 10 hours straight without eating or using the bathroom. But Alicia encouraged me to eat and got me to sleep. She helped me brainstorm and prioritize. She was my sounding board. She’s vastly intelligent and wise. She helped us sprint towards July 24th, when we flew to Taiwan on a long-awaited trip. It was her first time to see where I grew up, the first time for me to be back “home” in a decade, and the first time to meet our new nephew. We had not seen my brother and his family in two and half years, my father in a year, and it was my 10-year high school reunion. Not only was it meaningful to show Alicia my roots, not only was she ever-interested in my nostalgic musings for two weeks (pics of the trip will be up on facebook soon), she spent most of her 15-hour flight from Chicago to Hong Kong doing a final read through and edit of my paper. It would not have been a success without her. Her fingerprints are all over the best parts.