To My Dear Friend Brent Chamberlain #3: This Christmas I’m Giving You a Tailored Summary of My Dissertation

Dear Brent,

I’m sitting on my couch the afternoon of Christmas Eve. Alicia is putting Tilly down after we went for a walk in Fairmount Park–explored a new section–and then I made a big breakfast/lunch (pics below). You spent Christmas with us in 2018, so it’s officially been 2 years since we’ve seen you. Merry Christmas friend. I hope you are well, wherever you are. Just as a reminder, we have a spare bedroom that you are welcome to at anytime.

I promised earlier to give you a brief summary of my dissertation, so I thought I would take this chance to share that.

The first chapter examined the primal world beliefs associated with political ideology. This ended up being really interesting and I’ve been encouraged to try and publish it in top journals. Basically, the existing literature–one of the few that have examined primals–has repeatedly found this important correlation between dangerous world belief and conservatism (vs. liberalism) and it was interpreted as causal. Dangerous world belief was thought to describe a pair of worlds in which opposite political behaviors make more sense. For example, it was thought that anti-immigration policies were increased by the belief that the world is dangerous. But my work has found that, first, dangerous world belief is multi-dimensional (this wasn’t known before) and, second, it turns out that the previous research relied on a scale that happens to emphasize precisely the ways that conservatives see the world as dangerous while neglecting the ways that liberals see the world as dangerous (liberals tend to see the world as rife with injustice)–I replicate these findings a few times. Then, when you use my scale, you find that dangerous world belief doesn’t correlate at all with conservatism (i.e., conservatives are no more likely to see the world as more dangerous than liberals). I replicated these results in like 5,000 people across 8 samples with pre-registered hypotheses, so we are pretty damn sure. What’s really cool, however, is that a handful of other primals do correllate with political ideology–this same pattern was observed too across 30 political variables, from attitudes about Trump to thoughts on climate change–and these primals also describe a pair of perceived worlds in which opposite political behaviors make sense. In short, conservatives tend to think that the world is full of differences that matter a lot, whatever the difference is, and liberals tend to think that differences are superficial and meaningless. I propose a new theory on this basis called hierarchy theory that should inform any context in which the forces of preservation clash with the forces of change. : )

Here’s the conclusion of the chapter:

This moment in history is one of relatively intense political polarization. If sorely-needed mutual understanding, compromise, and conflict resolution—not to mention productive psychological research—requires perspective-taking, descriptively establishing how the world looks from liberal and conservative perspectives is of paramount importance. Above studies suggest that decades of perspective-taking efforts were frustrated because the primals of political ideology were misidentified. Conservative attitudes were imagined as partly a reaction to seeing the world as dangerous when conservatives do not actually see the world as meaningfully more dangerous. Now, with the right primals identified, the hope is that perspective-taking efforts can become more fruitful. It starts by imagining what it must be like to see difference differently. Hierarchy theory is an attempt to back up and start down this path. 

Another cool thing about this chapter is that, for random reasons, I got to have lunch a while back with Barack Obama’s sister, who is a friend of a friend in Hawaii. She’s cool. I got to talking about some of this work and about how at the time I thought that I shouldn’t study it now, cause I didn’t really want people to learn about primals in a political context, wellbeing stuff seemed more pertinent, and I didn’t have a way to alter these primals yet anyway. She encouraged me to screw it, that even if we can’t change these primals, it would be useful to have a framework so that we don’t just think the other side is crazy. And indeed, she’s right, so I pursued this now and not later. The world from the conservatives perspective is a lot more consistent than I realized, and they also aren’t driven by fear to the extent that I/we/psychologists/everyone thought. This, in the immortal words of Joe Biden, is a big fucking deal. Marty even started to strategize about what New York Times reporter we should get to feature this research. Crazy shit. My other chapters are not this cool.

My second chapter has already been published in Frontiers in Psychology, which is an open source journal so you can read it easy. This is kinda a paper within a paper. First, the inner paper is a discussion of how primals relate to experiences. Some people have the intuition that primals reflect our backgrounds (e.g., poor people see the world as more barren). But I argue that primals are schemas are used to interpret events in our lives while being themselves largely un-impacted by these events–even trauma probably doesn’t impact it too much, which is against current theory–and then I identify several correlations that would indicate as such. For example, it turns out that rich people and poor people are about equally likely to see the world as abundant (or barren); men and women see the world as equally safe; and so forth. If our primals reflect our lived experience, this probably should not be. However, this doesn’t mean experiences don’t impact primals, just that our primals aren’t some straightforward reflection of our past. For example, having a positive role model who teaches one that the everything is beautiful and fascinating the more you look at things might be very influential, but not because you actually were in a more beautiful or fascinating place–the exposure was to a perspective, not a reality.

Btw, one reason I miss you is that you saw things as beautiful and would point out beauty to those around. I hope you are still doing that.

The outer paper is about how these discussions in psychology of how experience influences X construct of interest is a bit silly because psychology doesn’t really have a way to comprehend and organize a diverse range of experiences for proper consideration–so I made one up. It was useful for my own research purposes so I’m sharing it with others. Basically, all human experience can be sorted into eight buckets defined by three dimensions: how long the event happens (acute/chronic), whether its a positive or negative event, and whether the experience is voluntarily or forced upon you by the world. For example, negative, acute, involuntary events I call Bad Luck events and positive, chronic, voluntary events I call Good Habits. It was fun to come up with and nice to do something that wasn’t just primals related.

My third chapter is super long and a bit unpublishable in its current form (its got literally 11 discussion sections). Basically, if we are going to ever change people’s primals, we are going to have to address meta-beliefs about primals that (likely) reinforce that primals. For example, some people think that seeing the world as dangerous is what keeps them safe. Another example: if I see the world as a shithole, I’ll be happier because I’ll never be disappointed. Study 1 showed that such meta-beliefs purporting the value of negative primals are quite prevalent. It was cool. I found out by asking parents what primals they want to pass on to their children, and a surprising number of parents explicitly desire to pass on negative primals to their children (btw, I expect this is true of teachers too and would love to talk to you about that). Also, very very few parents want their kids to see the world as very positive–most thought that seeing the world as slightly positive was the sweet spot.

So…a second study looked at several thousand subjects and like 50 professions. I looked at suicide ideation, depression, life satisfaction, job satisfaction, job success, and overall wellbeing. The goal was to find any outcome/sample/profession in which more negative primals were actually associated with more positive outcomes. I found (basically) none. Negative primals in almost all cases were associated with worse to dramatically worse outcomes, and this was also true of the difference between slightly positive primals and very positive primals–moderating approaches had no apparent benefit. In other words, it seems that the more positive the better, even if primals are already quite positive.

Why? I think that this is because primals–even really extreme ones–do not force one to interpret events in a particular way. For example, if I think, say, that “Jack is a liar” that by no means forces me to never believe anything he says. There might be tons of exceptions to his lying ways. Likewise for primals. We can see the world as an extremely positive place while losing little ability to recognize problems as they arise. I’m speculating, but I don’t know how else to explain the fact that cops who saw the world as dangerous weren’t better at being cops (and in fact were a bit worse). Likewise across professions. Seeing the world as a shithole doesn’t seem to make you any better at dealing with that shit, it just makes you unhappy.

There you go. Those were my three chapters. I tried to explain them to you like I was in person. I wish we could have had some wine together for this discussion. Thanks for reading. I’m sure you are proud of me. I’ll try to describe how the defense went later.

In the meantime, Merry Christmas friend. I am sitting on my couch thinking of you and hoping you are well. I’m listening to a pandora station we made together in December 2018 when you were here–it’s Christmas choral music, which I don’t see myself making on my own ; ) I miss you. Alicia does too.

With affection,


About Jer Clifton

Look up, friend. The world is too beautiful for my eyes alone. View all posts by Jer Clifton

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