Tag Archives: Worldview

What Reality are Trump People Living In?

If you are anything like me, you don’t quite understand what to make of the Trump phenomenon.  Sure Hillary is winning, but what is more interesting to me is that over a third of Americans still plan to vote for this guy.  Why?  I’m bored with demonizing Trump and Trump supporters.  I want to understand the world they are seeing because I don’t get it.

As luck would have it, I happen to be a researcher at Penn who studies the impact of primal world beliefs, which are beliefs about the nature of reality writ large such as “the world is fascinating.”  Primals are the most super simple, essential, and general beliefs we have.  As of a few months ago, we can now measure 28 primals (yay!).  To give away the results, 24 of them mostly collapse into three big ones (Safe, Enticing, and Alive) and these in turn collapse into 1 big one (Good, defined hedonistically).  Currently, I’m trying to publish all these measures and look at psychological correlates (super happy…lots of big effect sizes and highly significant findings… primals predict depression, wellbeing, life satisfaction, etc.), but I had some data on current politics and, in this season of absurdity, I thought some people might find it interesting.  I’m also learning how to report and conduct these analyses, so it’s good practice. What follows is a summary and an appendix with all the numbers.  Keep in mind that all findings below come from one online sample of 533 people [so place grain of salt here].  Eventually, I plan to publish a peer-reviewed journal article with much of this information.

What reality are Republicans and Democrats living in?

So I had this fantastic theory that Republicans would see the world as way more dangerous than Democrats.  I though that might explain Republicans’ “irrational” a) fear of criminals which manifests as interest in law and order and support for mandatory minimums, b) fear of ISIS, c) fear of Mexicans, d) fear of people coming to take their guns, e) fear of government, and f) fear of out-group members generally.  At their last convention, and indeed for every single Republican debate, it seemed like candidates were always trying to out-terrorize each other (“No, I understand the great peril we are in!”…”No, no.  I understand it better.”)

However, this theory was wrong.  True, Republicans see the world as slightly more dangerous, but way less than I thought.  It’s a small relationship.

Furthermore, both parties see the world as about more or less equally good, revolving around them, abundant, acceptable, beautiful (Dems were slightly higher), changing, pleasurable, improvable, improving (Dems were slightly higher), interesting, meaningful, needing them, fragile, understandable, and against them.  There were so many similarities!

Ok.  So where do they differ?  Republican reality differs from Democratic reality in 9 ways, 4 small, 4 medium, and 1 big.  Let’s get the small ones out of the way first.

  • On average, Democrats see the world as less competitive.  That is, on average, their honest opinion is that collaboration, and not competition, makes the world go round.  In turn, this would make sense of why Republicans tend to see Democrats as more naive “kum-by-ya-ists,” and Democrats tend to see Republicans as more merciless cutthroats.
  • On average, Republicans see the universe as more atomistic while Democrats tend to see the universe as more of an interconnected whole.  Perhaps this helps Clinton’s slogan of “Stronger Together” have traction among those with a worldview in which deep interconnection and cooperation is more of a felt reality.  Perhaps this allows the issue of climate change to find more fertile ground among Democrats.

I predicted the two above.  They make sense of Republicans emphasizing free markets and American exceptionalism, among other things.  I did not predict the two below:

  • On average, Dems see the world as more funny.  Republicans tend to think that funny things are fewer and farther between.  I wonder if this partly explains why virtually all comedians and entertainers are Democrats.
  • One of the primals I measured is what I call “Characterizable.”  Basically, do you think the world has an overall nature or not?  On average, Republicans tend to think it has a nature while Democrats do not.  Again, however, these are all fairly small differences.

Moving on to the 4 differences that are a bit bigger:

  • On average, Republicans see the world as more alive, which means they see the universe as more imbued with intention and that the world is interacting with them personally.  However, these sorts of views correlate with increased religiosity, so I’m not sure if seeing the world as alive is relevant to political views or just a side effect of religion.  My intuition says it’s probably more of a side effect, so I don’t talk about it as much in the analysis below.
  • On average, Republicans see the world as less worth exploring.  This is essentially a gut level sense of return on investment for the worthwhileness of exploring or learning more about any given thing, place, or person.  Democrats do not necessarily actually explore their worlds more; it just means that they think most everything is more likely to be worth exploring.
  • On average, Republicans see the world as more just.  Does the arc of life trend towards justice.  Does life find a way to reward those who do good and punish those who do bad?  Is the world a place where working hard and being nice pays off?  Republicans tend to say ‘Yes,’  and Democrats say ‘No.’

    Demi are top. Reps are bottom.

    Dems (top) tend to see reality as unfair and Republicans (bottom) tend to have the honest opinion that life will find ways to reward those who work hard and help others.

  • Finally, the second biggest difference between Republicans and Democrats is that Republicans live in a reality marked by decline, and Democrats think the world is getting better.  On the one hand, this makes sense of why such vague rhetoric as “We don’t win anymore” appeals to Republicans and not Democrats, because even though it’s a super vague statement, it corresponds to a primal world belief that distinguishes these groups.  On the other hand, this distinction between Reps and Dems might be to some degree an artifact of who’s in the White House.  I imagine that when Bush was in charge, Republicans might have seen the world as in less decline and Democrats’ views would have changed a bit too.  Still, I doubt this distinction would disappear.

All this, however, except for decline, is relatively small potatoes.  Let’s talk about the biggest difference, because it both makes sense and doesn’t make sense: hierarchical.  


Democrats are on top, and Republicans are below. As you can see, despite plenty of overlap between the two groups, there is a striking difference.

What the hell does “hierarchical” mean?  Out of all the primals we have identified, this one is the least intuitive.  For me, it was also super fun to see it “pop” in relation to politics because Hierarchical wasn’t related to depression, anxiety, optimism, curiosity, income, education, or really any of the other variables I looked at.

The “hierarchical” primal concerns the nature of differences.  Namely, does difference imply that something is better or worse?  For those who believe that reality is hierarchical, if two things are different that usually implies that one is better than the other.  Likewise, for those who see reality as nonhierarchical, differences are likely surface and meaningless distinctions and probably distractions.  Under the latter view, any attempt to organize the world into “better” or “worse” things will either fail or be inaccurate and superficial.  However, for folks who see the world as hierarchical, most things can be fairly usefully ranked and ordered from better or worse.  This includes objects, from knives to landscapes, and people, from individuals to ethnic groups.  The biggest difference between Republicans and Democrats is that Republicans, on average, see the world as more hierarchical, or, to put it a different way, Democrats gloss over differences.

Are Trump supporters particularly strange Republicans?  

In a nutshell, no.  Trump people, as opposed to old Cruz and Kasich people, as well as independents, are fairly similar on every primal except 4.  Trump supporters out-Republican their Republican peers by seeing the world as even more Alive, Just, and  Hierarchical.  Also, Trump people think the world isn’t changing quite as much.


All Republicans/independents on top. Trump folks on the bottom.

So what does this all mean? 

I’ve been trying to wrap my head arounds what this means, but it is starting to make some sense.  I’d love input:

  • Those who see the world as hierarchical and just will tend to assume in small ways that successful people are better people.  This suggests susceptibility to infatuations with billionaires.
  • If we assume that the world is hierarchical and just, then political correctness appears foolish.  PC culture is a real problem because it glosses over differences that really matter.  This might explain a deep frustration on the Right about political correctness that the Left just doesn’t get.
  • I’ve often been confused by why Americans need to talk about their country like it’s the best country in the history of the world.  But, if we assume that the world is hierarchical and just, and America is the most powerful country in the world, then it stands to reason that America is also the best.  It would feel false to say, “America is unique” without also saying, “America is the best.”
  • If we assume that the world is hierarchical and just, then we will have more difficulty mixing with and including out-groups.  Obviously, hispanic or African American culture is different than the culture of small-town white America where, according to Haidt, sanctity concerns matter more.
  • Jon Haidt identifies 5 political values: care/harm, fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, & sanctity/degradation.  Democrats score higher on two–care and fairness–while Republicans score more equally on all of them.  It may be useful to understand how primals interact with these values.  For instance, if, like many Republicans, you see the world as more just, then pursuing fairness should be less of a priority.  Likewise, if you see the world as hierarchical, then it is natural to value authority and submit to it.  Indeed, investigating the relationship between the values and primals of political ideologies could be a fascinating line of research.
  • The difference between Dems and Reps regarding Worth Exploring may be merely a manifestation of the much bigger difference on Hierarchical.  For Dems, the tendency to assume that differences don’t speak to value may be a tendency to gloss over differences in how worth exploring things are too.  In turn, for Republicans, seeing the world through the lens of rankings and hierarchies can’t allow every thing to be equally interesting because some things got to be boring.
  • Finally, the very definition of conservatism entails conserving something.  This is not an urgent priority for someone who sees reality as improving.  But, if the world is going to the dogs, then we need to hold on to the more just hierarchy of yesterday.

Ok.  Pretending this makes sense for a second, where do these primals come from?  

We don’t know.  I speculate that they come from many sources, including religion and numerous life experiences.  But what seems promising for explaining Hierarchical is simply where one lives.  Ask yourself, if you wanted to design an intervention that encouraged people to see the world as less hierarchical, what would you do?  Well, we would want to expose people to many different types of people and things that were quite different from each other, but not necessarily better or worse.

Where better to do that than in cities?

With all the talk about red and blue states, we forget that the political divide in America is likely better described as the rural-urban divide.  Check out the map below of the 2012 presidential election results by county.  You will find, of course with plenty of exceptions, that rural areas are red and urban areas are blue.  For instance, Oregon is a reliably blue state, but what’s really happening is that a redder countryside surrounds Portland and Eugene.  In Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Erie, Pittsburgh, Scranton, Allentown, and Harrisburg are blue dots in a mostly red state.  In Texas, Dallas (up there on its own), Austin, San Antonio, Houston, and Beaumont are particularly striking.  This seems to hold for Florida, Georgia, Virginia, and others.  Of course, there are plenty of exceptions.  If I remember correctly, Oklahoma City is particularly conservative.


In other words, belief that the world is nonhierarchical could be a side-effect of urban life.

Could Democrats or Republicans use my data to help win this election or future elections?  

I think so, but should we?  Full disclosure: as a missionary kid who grew up overseas and is quite intercultural, I see the world as deeply nonhierarchical.  Adopting the lens of hierarchy does not come naturally to me, and of course I’m very much a fan of making everyone more like me.  Woohoo! Let’s do it!  Further, as a scientist, we’ve discovered no evidence so far that seeing the world as hierarchical helps or hurts wellbeing that much (though that’s not saying much… we’ve just started looking at this).

However, for a Democrat, I’m also a bit of an outlier on the belief that the world is just.  I tend to assume that life finds ways to reward those who work hard and do good.  As a scientist, I should note too that belief in a just world is the most studied primal to date.  It is connected to wellbeing, being more productive, being kinder to those around you, and numerous other good things.  Unfortunately, it’s also tied to blaming victims for their misfortunes, whether the victim is poor, sick, or disenfranchised.

What about Decline?  Way before I got into primals, and as a history super nerd (seriously friends, audiobooks and lectures on history are almost exclusively what I listen to in my spare time; I’m currently working through 3 books on medieval England), I have had a strong view that the world, in almost every way, is improving.  For example, Harvard’s Steven Pinker makes a case that violence has declined over human history.  Reasonable people can disagree, however, including Democrats like my wife, who happens to be much smarter than I am!

So, though I’m personally not down for changing Just beliefs, I could get excited about changing Declining and Hierarchical.  For the former, I would suggest that, in school, we study social history more and the history of those in power less.  Much of the improvements across the ages have been in such things as health, how we treat the mentally ill, women’s rights, human rights, legal systems, etc.  In my view, the facts speak for themselves (but that, I suppose, is how all of us think about all of our primals).

For Hierarchical, the big trick, as implied above, seems to me to be exposure.  One could seek to expose individuals to very different people, places, and things.  The logic being that this is why going to college, immersive overseas travel experiences like the Peace Corps, and moving to big cities tends to manufacture liberals (nothing new here).  These sorts of activities expose us to gays, jews, jesuits, rich, homeless, etc.  They become our friends, and we realize that the differences between us are very visible and fairly superficial. Who knows?  Maybe the DNC should think about supporting reality TV shows like Wife Swap (I’ve never seen it).

Finally, assuming we (Democrats) want to get more Republicans to vote for Hillary by capitalizing on primals already in place–to appeal to primals for political purposes without changing them–it seems that the Clinton folks were right to seize on how the Trump convention was pessimistic about America and then, at the Democratic convention, do more than the usual “America is the best” fanfare.  In other words, in order to appeal to those who see the world as more hierarchical, just, and in decline, it may be useful to be seen, to some degree, as the party of and celebrating the successful in-group.  I’m not sure if it’s worth it though.  It could alienate all those Dems who see the world as unjust and nonhierarchical.

In the meantime, I think it is important to not be condescending.  My original hypothesis had been that Trump people are essentially scared children, and that drove them, their politics, and their party into the arms of a demagogue.  This paternalistic theory was wrong.  The major difference between me and Trump supporters is more interesting and, hopefully, more useful.


  • On average, Republicans see the world as a tad more dangerous.  There’s a small difference between Republicans (M=2.31, SD=.96) and Democrats (M=2.53, SD=.92), but it’s barely significant t(321)=1.96, p=.05; g=.24.
  • On average, Republicans see the world as more Alive than Democrats (M=2.69, SD=.76; M=2.42, SD=.86; t(321)=-2.67, p=.008; g=.32).  This means they live in a reality more imbued with purpose and intentionality (M=2.63, SD=.91; M=2.2, SD=1.01; t(321)=-3.7, p=0.0003; g=.45).
  • On average, Republicans see the world as more easy to characterize than Dems (M=2.86, SD=.72; M=2.55, SD=.74; t(321)=-2.36, p=.019; g=.29).
  • On average, Dems see the the world as less competitive than Republicans (M=2.74, SD=.9; M=2.5, SD=.9; t(321)=2.2, p=.029; g=.27).
  • On average, Dems see the world as more funny than Republicans (M=2.88, SD=.91; M=2.66, SD=.93; t(321)=1.99, p=.047; g=.24).
  • On average, Dems see reality as more interconnected (M=.303, SD=1; M=2.74, SD=.91; t(321)=2.43, p=.016; g=.29).
  • The 2nd biggest difference is that, on average, Republicans see the world as more just (M=.2.58, SD=.84; M=2.86, SD=.93; t(321)=-2.78, p=.0057, g=.34).
  • When it comes to primals, the biggest difference between Republicans and Democrats is that whereas Republicans on average see reality as full of things that are meaningfully distinguishable from each other, Democrats tend to see all differences as not better or worse, but just different (M=2.73, SD=.82; M=2.17, SD=.91; t(321)=-5.23, p<.0001, g=.63).  You can think of this as “hierarchical.”  Republicans on average see hierarchy as more natural.  Everything is different from each other in ways that can make the object or person truly better or worse.  Democrats see hierarchy as more unnatural because the differences between things are not typically good or bad.
  • On average, Democrats see the world as more worth exploring (M=3.35, SD=.8; M=3.05, SD=.1.16; t(321)=2.8, p=0054, g=.34).
  • On average, Republicans tend to see the world as in decline (M=2.66, SD=1.32; M=2.12, SD=1.15; t(321)=-3.73, p=.0002, g=.45).
  • Compared to other Republicans/independents, Trump supporters see the world as equally good, safe (not even a little different), enticing, scarce (not even a little different), acceptable, beautiful, characterizable (Trump people see the world as slightly more characterizable), competitive (Trump people see the world as slightly more competitive), pleasurable, funny, improvable, improves, interesting, interconnected, meaningful, needs me (Trump people think the world needs them a little bit more), fragile, harmless, understandable, worth exploring, against them, and declining.
  • On average, Trump people see the world as even more Alive (M=2.69, SD=.76; M=2.38, SD=.91; t(303)=-2.94, p=.0036; g=.36).  And thus even more intentional (M=2.77, SD=.91; M=2.4, SD=1.12; t(303)=-2.9, p=.004; g=.36) and about them (M=2.22, SD=.84; M=1.96, SD=.83; t(303)=-2.57, p=.011; g=.31).
  • On average, Trump people see the world as even more hierarchical (M=2.62, SD=.9; M=2.31, SD=.9; t(303)=-2.85, p=.005; g=.35).
  • On average, Trump people see the world as even more just (M=2.77, SD=.94; M=2.54, SD=.93; t(303)=-1.99, p=.047; g=.24).
  • On average, Trump people don’t think the world is changing all that much (M=2.99, SD=.81; M=3.18, SD=.71; t(303)=2.12, p=.035; g=.26).

Note: After this post got approximately a bazillion more views than I expected (actually just 15,000), I thought I would double-check my analysis.  So, FYI, the above has been updated in light of a further review of effect sizes.  

Jer’s Thesis in Three Pages Using Non-Academic Language because Academic Language is for Silly Nits

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.

Joe smiles at the 2nd 2012 VP debate in Danville, Kentucky.  I think they are that pearly white in peson too!

Joe smiles at the 2nd 2012 VP debate in Danville, Kentucky. They are that pearly white in peson too!

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).

Thomas Kuhn

Thomas Kuhn coined the now widely used term “paradigm shift” to describe the process in which a scientific community abandons and adopts worldviews. Scientists, Kuhn argues, rely on a common paradigm that allows for progress by providing a sophisticated set of common assumptions–the don’t start from scratch. Among others, Kuhn credits Piaget, Gestalt psycholgists, and B. L. Whorf’s “speculations about the effect of language on worldview” (Kuhn, 1962/1996, p. viii) for playing an important role in the development of his ideas.

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).

Most know that Hitler's goal was Aryan dominance.  Few realize that he was just as insistence on establishing a dominate worldview, and achieving power through creating "psychically homogenized creatures" (p. 393) with one "infallible philosophy of life" (p. 455) which alone can achieve victory.

Most know that Hitler published his goal of Aryan dominance in 1925. Few realize that he was also just as insistent on establishing a dominate worldview.  His strategy for achieving power was creating “psychically homogenized creatures” (p. 393) with one “infallible philosophy of life” (p. 455) which alone could achieve victory.

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.

In Psychology of Worldviews (1919), Jaspers begins the process of operationalizing the construct of Weltanschauung in what he will later consider to be the most important work in his life.  He defines worldviews as frames of reference in which mental life takes place (later called schemas) and categorizes Weltanschauung as 1) attitudes or 2) world pictures.  Attitudes are approaches through which humans experience the world and World pictures, on the other hand, are mental representations of the world that we create in our heads.

In Psychology of Worldviews (1919), Jaspers begins a process of making Weltanschauung philosophy more practical in what he will later consider to be the most important work in his life. He defines worldviews as frames of reference in which mental life takes place (later called schemas) and categorizes Weltanschauung as 1) attitudes or 2) world pictures. Attitudes are approaches humans adopt towards the world and world pictures are mental representations of the world that we create in our heads.

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.

  1. 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.
  2. Is the world safe or unsafe?
  3. Is the world meaningful or meaningless?
Ronnie Janoff-Bulman wrote Shattered Assumptions in 1992.  Her theories continue to guide much depression and trauma research.

Ronnie Janoff-Bulman wrote Shattered Assumptions in 1992. Her theories continue to guide much depression and trauma research.

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. Is the universe comprehensible or incomprehensible?  Why should I try to understand the world if I have no chance of doing so?
  9. 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.
  10. 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.
  11. 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.
  12. 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.
  13. 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.
Calvin seems to think the world has intentionality, that there is a mind to compete against, and that mind is after him.

Calvin seems to think the world has intentionality (UA #10), that there is a mind to compete against, and that mind wants to win.

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:

  1. What universal assessments do people actually hold, who holds them, and what do the distributions look like?
  2. How are they held (implicitly or explicitly, compulsorily or freely, strongly or weakly, etc.)?
  3. Can certain UAs be tied to specific life outcomes, such as depression, divorce, subjective well-being, longevity, health, strengths, or even travel habits?
  4. What is the causal relationship between UAs and life outcomes?
  5. Which UAs are most likely to make people happy and fulfilled in life?
  6. Where do UAs come from, and at what age are they typically formed?
  7. Can UAs change?
  8. Can interventions be developed which change UAs into those most likely to bring happiness?
  9. 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!

This handsome devil is James Pawelski.  He is my professor, mentor, and friend.  He works as a Senior Scholar at the Positive Psychology Center, Director of the Masters of Applied Positive Psych program, and Executive Director of the International Positive Psychology Association.  He is also a philosopher who wrote his dissertation on William James.  We have a lot in common and it was a pleasure working with him!

James Pawelski is my professor, mentor, and friend. He works as a Senior Scholar at the Positive Psychology Center, Director of the Masters of Applied Positive Psych program, and Executive Director of the International Positive Psychology Association. He is also a philosopher who wrote his dissertation on William James. We have a lot in common, and it was a pleasure working with him!  He is possibly the most emotionally intelligent philosopher I know.

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.  


Alicia, my beautiful wife, hiking up Lantau mountain in Hong Kong.