I discovered my preferred form of intellectual hedonism by staying up past my bedtime one evening in late 2006. I was a junior at Houghton College and hanging out with intellectual heavyweight classmates Alicia Walmus (now Clifton…bam!), Brent Chamberlain, and Chris Fiorello in the basement of Wesley Chapel. They had just read a draft philosophy manuscript of mine and, before I knew it, Chris came out swinging, Alicia disagreed, Brent nuanced, and they were off debating whether I was right, what I had meant, and whether I was being brilliant or a totally inept monkey typist.
At first, I was trying to jump in to lay down some wisdom. But, thank goodness, stuttering slowed me down enough to be distracted by the conversation itself. It riveted me. Hours flew by. I found myself adopting an observer role with occasional questions (remarkable only for being uncharacteristic), and something clicked:
There’s nothing more fun and weirdly addictive than listening to smarter better-informed people wrestle with your own ideas.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m into being super virtuous and all, but the current topic is straight-up selfish infantile pleasure. Whether it’s bashing, praising, building off my ideas, connecting them to other ones, etc., I love it when smarter people discuss my ideas and find them interesting. (Finding them accurate is good too I guess). Years later, I would learn that my top two strengths, according to the VIA strengths survey, are Creativity and Bravery. Basically, this means that I like coming up with crazy shit and putting it out there. My life can be generously described, therefore, as one sustained effort to gather smart people and hog discussion topics.
Ten months ago, all my nerdiest dreams came true in the form of a three day event at the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvannia. I meant to blog about this sooner but I’ve been irrationally fearful. Frankly, I have a hard time believing it happened. In short, my tombstone will read,
Here lies Jer, who had an idea, made a top-ten list of the world’s scholars he’d most enjoy talking to about it, got them into a windowless conference room, didn’t let them leave for three days, made them talk about nothing else but the idea, and they seemed it find it super interesting.
These scholars are worth knowing about. I want to introduce you and share a quote that gives a flavor of their thinking about primals.
Dr. Carol Dweck
Carol’s research focuses on how to foster success by influencing mindsets. In particular, the belief that abilities can be improved is critical to actually improving–we pursue what we think can be caught. Her bestselling book Mindset has been widely acclaimed and translated into more than 20 languages. I highly recommend it.
The picture above cracks me up because Carol is an incredibly kind person. She was also one of the first to buy into the primals concept, inviting me out to stay with her in California, spending hours talking about primals, and continues to shepherd me through this crazy time. I’m proud to call her my friend. She says,
Beliefs are at the heart of motivation, personality, well being, and much pathology, yet this is not widely recognized. To the extent that studying primals (or core beliefs) can bring this to the fore, it could have a tremendous effect on how we conceptualize and study human nature.
Dr. Alia Crum
Alia’s Mind & Body Lab focuses on how mindsets—the lenses through which information is perceived, organized, and interpreted—alter objective reality. For example, our beliefs about the effects of stress changes the effects of stress and beliefs about fattening foods makes some foods more fattening.
I adore Alia. We struggle with having conversations that last less than 3 hours. We talk about examining the influence of meta-beliefs (beliefs about the usefulness of a belief), how primals relate to health, and how to navigate academia. The main difference between our focus is that she studies beliefs that are more specific than primals (e.g. beliefs about stress rather than beliefs about everything), and she focuses on how they impact physical health. She says,
Although some may be confused—or even overwhelmed—by the premise that we have implicit assumptions about the nature of the world and that those assumptions play a powerful role in shaping our experience of the world, it makes complete sense to those of us who study mindsets and beliefs…Primals, as Jer has defined them, are the most general beliefs of all. As such, they have the greatest potential to assert a biasing influence into our lives, for better or for worse.
Dr. Alan Fiske
Alan received his BA from Harvard, PhD from the University of Chicago, and has done fieldwork in Malawi, Congo, Bangladesh, and Burkina Faso. He’s well known for his theory of social relationships which breaks down all human relationships into four basic types. He’s just written a new book, Virtuous Violence, in which he suggests that much violence is pursued by a genuine desire to be moral. He helped us at the retreat by voicing some cautions. In particular, he wants us to be careful when it comes to applying primals theory and research to other cultures. He says,
The concept of primals is stimulating…as was evident from the animated discussions….[but] my claim [is] that concepts about the world are culturally embedded: they don’t make sense in isolation.
Dr. Rob DeRubeis
Rob was Chair of the Psychology Department at the University of Pennsylvania at the time of the retreat, so we were lucky to have him. He put some thought into how primals relate to depression and has also had some advice for me on how to pursue measuring primals.
In clinical psychology, we do not adopt a hands-off attitude when one has a belief such as “I am worthless.” We try to help the patient re-evaluate such beliefs, as they lead to poor life outcomes and nearly always are exaggerations or simply untrue. Jer and Marty want to study the belief “the world is worthless.” It’s imperative that we find out if this belief is also connected to poor life outcomes.
Dr. James Pawelski
James is a mentor. I love him. We share an affinity for facial hair, philosophy, goofiness, scholarship, and we both grew up overseas the children of Christian missionaries. He was my Master’s capstone advisor and helped launch all this. James is one of the world’s experts on William James, a philosopher important to both psychologists and philosophers, and is building projects exploring how the humanities can be used to explore and advance subjective wellbeing. Also, he recently figured out what “positive” means in “positive psychology” (he would hate me for saying that). He says,
It appears that most people, most of the time, do not know their primals, even though it seems likely that they influence us in a variety of ways. Given the promise primals research has for yielding life-changing insight and for facilitating profound individual and cultural transformation, I eagerly await the results Jer’s research will uncover.
Dr. Crystal Park
Crystal’s research explores many aspects of human life (including yoga!) with a focus on how certain beliefs influence an individual’s ability to cope with hardship. You might say that, if there was such a thing as “primals literature,” she would be one of the world’s top experts. She knows the studies done on beliefs which are most similar to primals, she knows how to measure them, and is now helping me figure out how to measure primals too. She’s also become a close mentor, a constant source of expertise and encouragement, and I am deeply grateful for her. She says,
I am quite familiar with the literature on those psychological constructs most similar to primals, and can therefore say without reservation that focusing on primals provides an opportunity to explore a fundamental element of human experience that has heretofore been minimally examined. It may be that it is so obvious that psychologists simply overlooked it… This is one of those projects that has great potential for identifying an important piece for what it means to be human.
Dr. Paul Rozin
Paul’s major research focus has been human food choice, the emotion of disgust, and cultural psychology. It was fun to have him. He was one of the guest professors for the Masters of Applied Positive Psychology program when I was a student. Before the retreat, he put some thoughts into how primals relate to cultural differences. He, David, and Alan shared a concern that helped us to become more nuanced. He says,
The problem that David, Alan and I kept returning to is that there is often no adaptive general belief that works for all situations. I will use the “world is safe” proposed primal. It is appropriate to feel unsafe in the Middle East and to feel safe in Denmark. It is appropriate to feel safe with one’s family, and less safe when dealing with strangers.
Dr. Richard Reeves
Richard’s one of my favorite people in the world to have a beer with: the smartest, wittiest (most English) philosopher/historian/policy guy I know. Richard’s policy work focuses on inequality. The image above is from his kickass appearance on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart earlier this year and in the video below he explains the current state of American inequality with legos. I recommend both.
At the retreat, Richard talked about primals across history, looking at the primals of Sparta and Athens, which was candy for a history nerd like me. He, James, Rob, and others, are convinced that primals have relevance across academic disciplines and for policy. He says,
There have been a few times in my professional life when an idea came along with that feeling of freshness—like putting one’s spade into genuinely new intellectual soil. This is how I feel about primals. The idea is so basic, so simple, but I really think that is has the potential to do some really good work and influence a wide range of fields.
Dr. David Sloan Wilson
You’ve probably heard of David’s books. He’s written Darwin’s Cathedral (2002), Evolution for Everyone (2007), and, his latest, Does Altruism Exist? (2015). In a room of top scholars, David’s breadth of knowledge across disciplines stood out. In addition to putting some thought into the relationship between primals and evolution, David had a suggestion for us,
Primals might not describe human and cultural universals. Instead, they might be culturally specific…vital for some cultures but marginal or even absent in others. [This] does not detract from the importance of the concept—especially if primals are found primarily in modern cultures, which are most relevant for improving human welfare in the future.
Dr. Chandra Sripada
Chandra is an incredibly encouraging human being and has supported me in key moments over the year. He had a great deal to say about values, which he thinks are really important to consider in conjunction with primals, and what was great is that he could talk about his stuff so deeply from both a philosophical and empirical perspective. He says,
I deeply hope that this project continues and that we come to identify these primal world views, measure them, and come to understand how they influence our lives. The results could be extraordinarily useful, not just in psychology, but also for other academic disciplines.
Honestly, bringing these folks together is an honor and privilege I will treasure for the rest of my life. Writing these posts, and seeing photographic evidence of us in windowless conference rooms bathed in warm fluorescence, I’m starting to believe it actually happened.
In the next post, I’ll share more about what we did at the retreat itself. Spoiler alert: Where’s Marty Seligman? In the meantime, here’s two group shots.