Boil it down for me…

Does Grumpy Uncle Ed live in a van down by the river because he thinks the world is ugly, dangerous, miserable, and going downhill, or does he have those beliefs because he lives in a van down by the river?  And does everyone love Fun Aunt Fanny because of her infectious sense that the world is beautiful, fascinating, and meaningful, or does she have those beliefs because everyone likes her.

In other words, we study primal world beliefs, or primals, which are an individual’s most general and most simple beliefs or assumptions about existence. Primals answer the fundamental question, “What sort of world is this?” and together comprise our individual gut-level take on reality.

Ok.  So like religious beliefs, nationalism, ethics, worldview stuff, right?  

Not really.  Those beliefs are too complex and too specific.  To count as a primal a belief has got to be:

  • maximally general: Primals are only beliefs about everything.  They concern what is typical, allowing for plenty of exceptions, but still concern the entirety of whatever matters to you at all.  No category of belief is more general in scope. For example, “life is predictable” is a primal while “people are predictable” or “my government is predictable” may relate, but is not quite it.
  • radically simple: Taking their place among the most unsophisticated of beliefs, primals typically take the form “the world is X” where X is one or two basic words, such as “the world is dangerous.”  For example, “the world is abundant” is a primal while “the world is defined primarily by positive sum games in which parties enjoy win-win outcomes as opposed to win-lose outcomes” is not.  It’s too complicated.
  • exclusively adjectival: Rather than describing how the world came to be what it is, why it came to be what it is, who is responsible for it being what it is, or how we know it is what it is, X simply describes what it is. For example, “the world was made by God” is not a primal for it does not describe the character of existence itself. “The world is beautiful” or “the world is intentional,” on the other hand, is included.
  • entirely essence-focused:  As you might recall from philosophy, change something’s essence, and you have perhaps a truly different thing; change something’s accidental, and people might not even notice.  So, “the world is dangerous” is a primal while “the world is composed of 118 chemical elements,” as opposed to 120 or 80, is not.  This criteria is, of course, more subjective and culturally relevant.
single slide.001

If one was to catalogue my properties and put them on a continuum between essence and accidents, facial hair would be one end and my core nature, which I think and hope is loving, would be on the other.

In addition, we think primals live as psychological phenemona (i.e. thingies in our heads) that exhibit two key attributes.

First, primals are implicit.  Most people most of the time are unlikely to know most of their primals.  Primals may live and develop and influence us as underlying, unspoken, unknown, and unexamined assumptions that we may be only dimly aware of.

Second, primals are emotional (gut-level, non-cognitive, etc.).  As the child of Baptist missionaries, I am quite comfortable with beliefs that are also feelings.  You don’t get to heaven, so to speak, by assenting to the right propositions.  Instead you believe deep down, “in your heart” (Romans 10:9), in your bones, in the hair on the back of your neck.   Primals are these “in-your-heart” sorts of beliefs.  A brilliant psychologist once bravely shared with me and a group of colleagues that she had the primal that “the word is abundant.”  It was her underlying deep take on the nature of reality.  Some scientists then tried to suggest rational reasons why her primal was false.  They didn’t get it.  (Indeed, I think part of why primals remain so understudied is that scientists, including me, are cognitive snobs.)  William James described primals as “our individual way of seeing and feeling the total push and pressure of the cosmos.”

If primals are implicit, how can you measure and study them?  

Implicit beliefs are not like secrets that your subconscious is keeping from you.  Rather, many are just assumptions we’ve never thought about.  Psychologists can often capture ours’ with good questions, and indeed a range of implicit beliefs have already been studied.  For example, Stanford Professor and Primals Initiative Senior Advisor Carol Dweck has found that the belief that one’s own abilities are malleable is often more useful than a belief that one’s abilities are fixed and can’t be changed.

In fact, some true primals have been studied too.  Of course, they have not been called primals (me, my wife, and former APA president and founder of positive psychology Martin Seligman made that term up), but the notion that existence is fair (called “belief in a just world” in the literature) has been tied to over 15 life outcomes ranging from increased job satisfaction (Otto, Glaser, & Dalbert, 2009) to prejudice against the poor (Furnham & Gunter, 1984).  Three other primals, “the world is safe,” “the world is malleable,” and “the world is understandable,” have also been examined.  Others, “like the world is meaningful” could also count.

Sounds like a bunch of primals have already been studied.  What’s left?  

Hah! Tons and tons.  So far we have identified 37 conceptually distinct primals via analysis of philosophical texts, famous novels, contemporary culture, political speeches, movies, religious texts, analyzing commonly used adjectives, focus groups among major world religions and political parties, etc.  Here are a few of the primals we plan to examine that, as far as we know, have never been studied.

  • the world is beautiful (or ugly)
  • the world is interesting (or boring)
  • the world is worth existing (or not worth existing)
  • the world is funny (or quite humorless)
  • the world is comfortable (or painful)
  • the world is abundant (or impoverished)
  • the world is intentional (or without intention)
  • the world is benevolent (or sinister)
  • the world interconnected (or separated)
  • the world is getting better (getting worse)
  • the world is constantly changing (or static)

Also, the four primals that have been studied (fairness, safety, malleability, and predictability) have been primarily examined in the context of recovery from trauma and depression.  We want to look at how these primals promote the “good life” too, and how other events like overseas travel, falling in love, having a baby, attending a four year liberal arts college, powerful spiritual experiences, and and other big life events, change our primals too.



Can you give me some examples of primals in the real world.  

Absolutely. We’ve started a Primals Archive which is a collection of real-world primals said by everyone from slum-dwellers to Pamela Anderson to Confucius.  As of January, 2015, we have over 650 entries.  Super easy to find, we hear or see explicit primals everyday in movies, on bumper stickers, from our religious leaders, in the news, and from our friends.  They’ll often take the form “life is…”, “the world is…,” “reality is…,” “everything is…,” “nothing is…,” “the universe is…,” “it’s all…,” “its never…,” or “you can always count on…”.  Here’s two examples:

"The world is getting better all the time."  - Bill Clinton, 2012

“The world is getting better all the time.” – Bill Clinton, 2012

This real-world statement is conceptually straightforward: the world is improving.  Here’s one slightly more complex, but still reducible to primals.  Stripped of the metaphor, what primal is being asserted here?

"Life is like a box of chocolates; you never know what you're gonna get."  -Forest Gump, 1994

“Life is like a box of chocolates; you never know what you’re gonna get.” -Forest Gump, 1994

We think that there are two primals here.  First, the world is unpredictable.  Nobody knows what will happen to them.  Second, the world is good, specifically fun, exciting, or an adventure even.  Life, after all, is chocolate, and not manure or poison.  (The old lady’s face is perfect.)

Like Gump’s mantra, most primals in real life are more poetic than “the world is X.”  If you start paying attention, you’ll start to seeing primals everywhere.  As you do, please send primals to Jess, our research coordinator, at jesmil[at]  Thanks!  It’s a major help.

Ok.  Primals seem to be everywhere and I expect they matter, but how do they influence us exactly?   

We suspect primals affect us through different mechanisms.  Here are a few that we want to explore further:

  • Primals comfort us.  They give us a sense that we understand the situation in which we find ourselves.  For years, Terror Management Theory has asserted we cling to worldview out of fear.  I agree and think that’s about 10% of the story.  I think we also just get comfort, calm, or just know-it-all cockiness from having a sense that we have grasped our cosmic situation.
  • Jean Piaget provided a mechanism capable of explaining why primals are useful and how they influence human perception and behavior. With the thousands of bits of information bombarding our senses every moment, we can only pay attention to a tiny fraction. Schemas help.  Schemas are beliefs, understandings, or mental frameworks regarding any object, which generate expectancy, thus allowing the individual to easily “organize, interpret, simplify, and understand information” (Nash, 2013, p. 15). They guide our attention by telling us what is likely, what is important, and what is true, and, generally, what is worth our precious time. Thus, in our reliance on schemas to organize incoming data, humans predictably tend to reject information that does not fit our schemas (e.g. Brewer, 2000). Primals are a specific subset of schemas that concern the world as a whole. Thus, at least in theory, primals influence how individuals interpret everything.  For example, Doom-and-Gloom Danny might have a strong primal that the world is going down the tubes.  This allows him to quickly process, for instance, tragic world news, “kids music these days,” or mind-numbing technology into one over-arching narrative of decline.
  • Primals may influence memory.  Memory appears to be a process of active reconstruction rather than pulling up files on a cognitive hard-drive.  When we remember, we actually re-create stories of our past in our head according to bits of information and what we think makes sense.  As schemas, primals do much to define what makes sense.  In fact, we want to test if changing people’s primals changes people’s memories.
  • Richard Reeves, Brookings Institute, Senior Advisor for the Primals Initiative, we like him

    Richard Reeves, Brookings Institute, Senior Advisor for the Primals Initiative, we like him

    Primals allow us to act when in ambiguous situations.  One of our advisors is Richard Reeves, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute,  was out biking with his kids in a strange neighborhood and their bikes broke.  They had to get home, but they had no locks and didn’t know where to put their bikes.  He explains what he did next, “I think my own primal is that the world is quite safe.  So, I walked up to a house nearby, rung the doorbell, and asked a complete stranger to store our bikes in their garage for a few days so we could take the bus home.  They were happy to help.  Those who live in scary worlds would not likely store their bikes at a strangers house, or bike in strange neighborhoods for that matter.”  Primals influence us when we have little to go on. In a 2013 study in Pediatrics, Renjilian and colleagues found that overarching heuristics about life guide people in making complex medical decisions concerning life and death.  Uncertainty is everywhere (primal alert!).

  • Primals generate expectations for “return on attentional investment.”  In other words, we will look for what we expect to find.  If you don’t think the world is beautiful, there is no reason to look up at the trees as you walk down the sidewalk, or run outside just to catch a glimpse of a sunset.
  • Perhaps obviously, primals can create experiences in-line with the primal itself.  Consider another primal: if I think he world is boring, I may be more likely to not search for interesting things and, because of that, have more boring experiences in my life.
  • Boring experiences themselves may many different consequences.  We may be less engaged, learn less, not work as hard, not do as well at work, friends might find us less interesting, or we might be less inspired to make the world a better place.  We also may be less distractible (there are likely many various upsides to “negative” primals).
  • But perhaps the most interesting result of boring experiences is that we are more likely to continue to think that the world is boring.  If so, our primal leads to experiences which support our primal which leads to experiences…and so on.  Some primals may be self-perpetuating.
  • They also may be self-fulling in that they, to some extent, make the world in their image.  For instance, if a society believes that the world doesn’t change, then they are less likely to try to change it, which means, of course, that the world won’t change.
  • Finally, primals likely come together to form entire implicit worlds in which some behaviors and thought process just can’t make sense and others come naturally.  For instance, even if Grumpy Uncle Ed wanted to be an optimist, he couldn’t.  Optimism, hope, and many other beneficial thought patterns likely only make sense given certain implicit worlds.

Why are you passionate about this?

I’m convinced that millions of people have unknowingly imprisoned themselves in implicit worlds.  Psychologists can help us in two ways.  First, they can help unearth what primals we hold.  Secondly, they can provide information for how these beliefs influence us so that people can make informed choices.

How did you come up with this idea?  

I didn’t.  It turns out that when the ancient Greeks emerged from prehistory, this question dominated Western philosophy for its first two centuries.  For example, Heraclitus of Ephesus (circa 535 to 475 BCE) argued that the world is defined by constant change and thus a super depressing place because all familiarity, all sense of home, is illusory. In the 19th century, Kant used the term Weltanschauung (German for “worldview”) in Critique of Judgement (1790/1987) to refer to a notion subsequently developed by Hegel, Nietszche, Dilthey, Husserl, Jaspers, and basically every other major philosopher at the time (for a comprehensive review, see Naugle, 2002; for a summary see Clifton, 2013). Rather than focusing on component beliefs such as “the world is changing,” their unit of analysis was the amalgam of all “big” beliefs, including religious, political, and moral perspectives, that together constituted a worldview. The central idea was that we should not only engage in the philosophical or scientific enterprise of determining one’s worldview, we should also recognize that our worldviews influence us in many practical ways. Ralph Waldo Emerson (1844/1949) summarizes the psychological claim these philosophers were making in a rhetorical question, “Does the universe wear our color?” (p. 303). As Wundt started the first psychology lab in Germany in 1879, Weltanschauung thinking was spreading to different disciplines and coming to dominate the academic world (Naugle, 2002). One example from socio-economics is Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and The Spirit of Capitalism (1921/1958).

However, for the first half of the 20th century, most psychologists, despite the crossover work of Karl Jaspers and others, paid little attention to Weltanschauung. One reason is that it was considered unmeasurable. Since Wundt, who thought that all higher mental processes, such as learning, were outside the scope of experimental science, psychology has been pushing back the boundaries of measurable phenomenon.

Weltanschauung was also out of step with psychology’s reigning paradigms. Beginning with Freud, emotions were usually thought of as the primary driver of human behavior. During the behaviorist era, emotions were supplanted in favor of mechanical conditioning, until both were largely overturned during the cognitive revolution of the 1960s by Beck, Ellis, and cognitive behavioral therapy. The assumption driving cognitive behavioral therapy was that, in general, beliefs produce feelings and behaviors. Subsequently, an extensive psychological literature developed to describe how beliefs affect human life. Naturally, psychologists started with the most tangible and obvious beliefs, especially those about the self or nearby objects and people.For example, belief in our own abilities motivate us; deterministic beliefs depress us; and beliefs about what is healthy consistently cause sugar pills to outperform many modern medicines (for a review of self-efficacy literature, see Maddux, 2009; for a review of explanatory style, see Buchanan & Seligman, 2013; for a review of the placebo effect, see Price, Finniss, & Benedetti, 2008). Left largely neglected, however, were the all-encompassing abstractions that fascinated the Presocratics and 19th century continental philosophers–which we want to study now.

So, yeah, I didn’t come up with the idea.  If anything, I connected some super obvious dots.


I made this shirt for Alicia during college nearly a decade ago. It’s come to encapsulate my mission, and represents the focus of my psychological research.

I made this shirt for my wife (Alicia) during college nearly a decade ago when a change in primals transformed my own life.  The quote has come to encapsulate my mission and is a pretty decent summary of  my research interests.

5 responses to “Primals

  • Jenette

    Somehow (through Facebook) my dad lead me to this blog/article. He tagged me regarding your work. I was intrigued and a little miffed at the idea of more mindless categorizing and philosophizing about human behavior and motivation. Sounds pretty snooty of me, considering I don’t even have a college degree.

    But, I think you are on to something here, and I hope it helps people.

    Your tee-shirt quote brought tears to my eyes. It deeply resonated in me. I suppose that must be a primal for me.

    A very serious illness in my daughter changed that for me for about a year, that was such a black year for me, and I am so glad to have that back by the grace of God. She is not completely well, but these things (which were my companions while she was sick) have left me: the world is a dangerous place, I cannot trust, nothing is certain, life is meaningless.

    I was constantly in fear of some new pain, as two of my other kids developed symptoms, and answers and understanding was scarce. I would wake up scared and find relief from fear in late afternoon when my body was worn out from the fear… The one meager hope I held out for each day, was that point of exhaustion would arrive and grant me reprieve.

    Pivotal toe wss the following… I remember hearing my younger girls singing, “Standing on the Promises of God”. Which lead me to ask, what were the promises of God? Each time I qwavered in my faith. I asked that. This was important in restoring my trust in God. In all if my pain and my daughter’s sickness, none of the promises of God had been broken. It must eventually (by my remembering this) have restored some primal about trust in God, or fear in circumstances to come… I came back to believing it was safe as I trusted my soul to my redeemer and His eternal promises, not broken, not completely fullfilled in this life. This makes me look for beauty again, this promise of the beauty to come.

    The world IS a beautiful place, there will be beauty for ashes, strength for tears, gladness for mourning and peace for despair.

    I love your tee-shirt. I hope you help lots of people look up.

  • Linda McCormick

    Enjoyed reading more of the details of your primal pursuits…proud of you…love you!

  • Cary

    Very nice, Jer. I am impressed how far you have come and how the “bones” are beginning to come together for you, making a solid skeleton for your research.

  • Guy Giesbrecht

    Thrilling stuff.

    I can’t help but notice that this search of yours looks a lot like a categorization exercise in machine learning.

    Since you have a decent size collection of examples and a nigh infinite amount of data from the web that would make this a really great candidate for a Kaggle contest.

    You might want to think about checking them out:

    Keep up the good work!

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