Jeremy “Jer” D. W. Clifton
Jeremy D. W. Clifton received a PhD in psychology from the University of Pennsylvania studying with Dr. Martin Seligman (advisor), Dr. Angela Duckworth (committee chair), and Dr. Rob DeRubeis. His primary research area concerns primal world beliefs, with a secondary focus on measurement. Publications include the 2019 Psychological Assessment article introducing primal world beliefs that was recently featured in the Washington Post and a 2019 Psychological Methods article on tradeoffs between validity and reliability. He is currently Senior Research Scientist at the UPenn Positive Psychology Center, Director of the UPenn Primals Initiative, chair of the Primals Research Awards Steering Committee, and teaches research methods in the UPenn Masters of Applied Positive Psychology program.
Jer spent the first eighteen years of his life in Taiwan and Hong Kong as the child of Baptist missionaries. Houghton College offered Jer its top merit-based scholarship, and he completed a BA in Philosophy there in 2007. During college, Jer first conceived of and wrote a manuscript about primals, which he refined over the next seven years while working in the non-profit sector.
As an AmeriCorps community organizer and Housing Director at small nonprofits in Buffalo, New York, Jer coordinated urban neighborhood turnarounds. Highlights include starting a homeownership program, a philosophy club for gangsters, and a refugee soccer league as well as co-creating a theory of neighborhood renewal with Dr. Ron Oakerson and input from Dr. Elinor Ostrom, 2009 Nobel Laureate. Using this theory, Jer invented a neighborhood improvement contest called Curb Appeal that became a replicated Habitat for Humanity best practice. In 2011, Jer joined the CEO’s office at Habitat’s global headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia as a strategic planner. There he created the structure Habitat adopted for their global 2014-2018 strategic plan, “Building Impact,” and subsequently managed the national planning process for Habitat Sri Lanka. While in Atlanta, Jer also experienced momentary fame after rescuing a passenger on the subway tracks.
By 2013, Jer’s manuscript on primals had been rejected by sixty publishers and his literary agent had also struck out. However, while earning a Master’s Degree in Applied Positive Psychology, Jer realized that primals might be studied empirically, and indeed, a handful already had been. Jer wrote a 2013 Master’s capstone that systematically identified thirteen primals that might be conducive to well-being. This work attracted funding from Templeton and resulted in Jer being taken on as a PhD student under one of the most celebrated psychologists alive today, Dr. Martin E. P. Seligman.
In October of 2014, Jer convened ten top scholars to plan and think through the next decade or so of primals research. Over the next four years, researchers looked through hundreds of the most influential texts in the history of the world, analyzed millions of tweets, conducted a dozen focus groups, and so forth to identify candidate primals. They then administered hundreds of questions to a few thousand people across nine samples, including two-week, nine-month, and nineteen-month test-retests, and analyzed results via sophisticated clustering techniques. Over seventy researchers were involved.
In 2019, eleven co-authors wrote up and published the results in Psychological Assessment, the top psychology measurement journal. Alongside a five-hundred-page online supplement, this paper introduces twenty-six primal world beliefs, suggests the potential for sweeping theoretical implications, and identifies eight priority areas for further primals research, including clinical, positive, and developmental psychology. The authors conclude as follows:
Broadly speaking, human action may not express who we are so much as where we think we are, and much of what we become in life—much joy and suffering—may depend on the sort of world we think this is.
Jer expects primals to be his life’s work.
(Updated January 2020)
- PhD, Psychology, University of Pennsylvania, 2020, Committee: Dr. Martin Seligman (advisor), Dr. Rob DeRubeis, and Dr. Angela Duckworth (chair)
- Master of Psychology, University of Pennsylvania, 2016, GPA 3.90
- Master of Applied Positive Psychology, University of Pennsylvania, 2013, GPA 3.95
- Bachelor of Arts, Houghton College, 2007, Philosophy, Magna Cum Laude, GPA 3.72
Clifton, J. D. W. (2020). Happy in a crummy world: Implications of primal world beliefs for increasing well-being through positive psychology interventions. Journal of Positive Psychology. https://doi.org/10.1080/17439760.2020.1789703. Free full text pdf available at researchgate.
Clifton, J. D. W. (2020). Testing if primal world beliefs reflect experiences—At least some experiences identified ad hoc. Frontiers in Psychology, 11, 1145. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2020.01145. Free full text pdf available at researchgate.
Stahlmann, A. G., Hofmann, J., Ruch, W., Heinz, S., & Clifton, J. D. W. (2020). The higher-order structure of primal world beliefs in German-speaking countries: Adaptation and initial validation of the German Primals Inventory (GPI-66). Personality and Individual Differences, 163, 110054. Free full text pdf available at researchgate.
Clifton, J. D., & Kim, E. S. (2020). Healthy in a crummy world: Implications of primal world beliefs for health psychology. Medical Hypotheses, 135, 109463. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.mehy.2019.109463. Free full text PDF available here.
Clifton, J. D. W. (2019). Managing validity vs. reliability trade-offs in scale-building decisions. Psychological Methods. Advance online publication. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/met0000236. Free full text PDF available at researchgate.
Clifton, J. D. W., Baker, J. D., Park, C. L., Yaden, D. B., Clifton, A. B. W., Terni, P., Miller, J. L., Zeng, G., Giorgi S., Schwartz, H. A., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2019). Primal world beliefs. Psychological Assessment, 31(1), 82-99. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/pas0000639. Free full text PDF available at researchgate.
Oakerson, R. J., & Clifton, J. D. W. (2017). The Neighborhood as Commons: Reframing Neighborhood Decline. Fordham Urban Law Journal, 44, 411-450. https://ir.lawnet.fordham.edu/ulj/vol44/iss2/5. Free full text PDF available at researchgate.
Clifton, J. D. W. (2014). Review of the eudaimonic turn: Well-being in literary studies. Journal of Psychology in Africa, 24(1), 123-124.
Clifton, J. D. W. (in press). Measuring primal world beliefs. In W. Ruch, A. Bakker, L. Tay, & F. Gander (Eds.), Handbook of positive psychology assessment. European Association of Psychological Assessment.
Clifton, J. D. W. (2020). The primal world beliefs of political ideology [Manuscript submitted for publication]. Department of Psychology, University of Pennsylvania.
Clifton, J. D. W. (2020). The value of seeing the world as a bad place: A cross-sectional search for unicorns [Unpublished dissertation chapter]. Department of Psychology, University of Pennsylvania.
Clifton, J. D. W. (2020). Twelve tests whether primal world beliefs are reflections or projections [Manuscript in preparation]. Department of Psychology, University of Pennsylvania.
Yaden, D. B., & Clifton, J.D.W. (2020). What is the world? [Manuscript in preparation]. Department of Psychology, University of Pennsylvania.
Clifton, J. D. W. (2020). The primal world beliefs of law enforcement [Manuscript in preparation]. Department of Psychology, University of Pennsylvania.
Clifton, J. D. W. (2020). Two experiments testing hierarchy theory [Manuscript in preparation]. Department of Psychology, University of Pennsylvania.
Clifton, A. B. W., Stahlmann, A. G., Hofmann, J., Chirico, A., & Clifton, J. D. W. (2020). Improving cross-cultural equivalence through scale-specific translation guides: An example case of the Primals Inventory [Unpublished manuscript]. Department of Psychology, University of Pennsylvania.
Clifton, J. D. W. (2019). Two short form measures of primal world beliefs [Manuscript in preparation]. Department of Psychology, University of Pennsylvania.
Clifton, A. B. W., & Clifton, J. D. W. (2019). Guts: Reevaluation of long-term goals and rapid reorientation towards new ones [Manuscript in preparation]. Department of Psychology, University of Pennsylvania.
Clifton, J. D. W. (2018). Which beliefs could explain personality? [Unpublished doctoral qualifying exam]. Department of Psychology, University of Pennsylvania.
Clifton, J. D. W. (2018). The evolutionary origins of primals: The capacity for flexible primal world beliefs as a signature human adaptation [Manuscript in preparation]. Department of Psychology, University of Pennsylvania.
Clifton, J. D. W. (2018). Groupthink builds group cohesion, counter-acting the dangers of ‘individualthink’ [Manuscript in preparation]. Department of Psychology, University of Pennsylvania.
Clifton, J. D. W. (2018). A more balanced and comprehensive life experiences checklist based on the Cube Framework. [Manuscript in preparation]. Department of Psychology, University of Pennsylvania.
Yaden, D. B., & Clifton, J.D.W. (2018). A short form measure of spiritual experiences. [Manuscript in preparation]. Department of Psychology, University of Pennsylvania.
Co-Principle Investigator. (2021-2024). $1,999,621. The Primals Project: Seeding Catalytic Investigations in Psychology. Templeton Religion Trust, #0298.
Co-Principle Investigator. (2014-2015). $199,610. Planning a Primals Research Program. Templeton Religion Trust, #0049.
- Founded initiative; defined “primals;” set research priorities; directed activities
- Designed & submitted multi-million grant proposal
- Established partnership at Tsinghua University
- Managed 10 advisors, 29 consultants, and 22 interns
- Wrote/edited 415-page literature review examining 6 disciplines written by 5 experts
- Oversaw creation of Primals Archive of 1,715 explicitly stated primals from 358 major historical texts
- Oversaw conducting of 12 focus groups across different religions and cultures
- Oversaw analysis of the 840 most used adjectives in American English
- Oversaw analysis of 91,024 tweets from database of 2.24 billion
- Created primals classification; involved comment from 60 scholars
- Led 3 days of discussions on the future of primals research with 10 top scholars from Stanford, UCLA, UPenn, Brookings, and other institutions
Clifton, J. D. W. (April 2020). “How Devious Scale-builders (Like Me) Exploit Trade-Offs Between Reliability and Validity to Notch Impressive Alphas When Nobody’s Looking.” Invited virtual colloquium (during pandemic). Institute for Applied Research in Youth Development. Tufts University. Medford, Massachusetts.
Clifton, J. D. W. (July 2019). “Which Beliefs (if any) Could Theoretically Explain Personality and Wellbeing?” Invited talk. The Wellbeing and Resilience Center. South Australian Health and Medical Research Institute. Adelaide, Australia.
Clifton, J. D. W. (July 2019). “Happy in a ‘Shithole’ World: Personality and Wellbeing Implications of Primal World Beliefs.” Invited departmental talk. Ethics and Wellbeing Hub. The University of Melbourne. Melbourne, Australia.
Clifton, J. D. W. (July 2019). “Happy in a ‘Shithole’ World: The Wellbeing Implications of Primal World Beliefs.” Invited conference presentation. The 6th World Congress on Positive Psychology. The International Positive Psychology Association. Melbourne, Australia.
Clifton, J. D. W. (January 2019). “How Might Primals Relate to Personality?” Invited lab talk. Dr. Luke Smile’s Personality Processes Lab. The University of Melbourne. Melbourne, Australia.
Clifton, J. D. W. (December 2018). “The Primals of Wellbeing.” Invited webinar. Certificate of Applied Positive Psychology Program. The Flourishing Center. New York, NY.
Clifton, J. D. W. (November 2018). “Identifying Beliefs Central to Personality and Well Being.” Invited feature workshop and session co-chair [cancelled], scientific committee member. 7th International Conference. National Institute of Psychology. Islamabad, Pakistan.
Clifton, J. D. W. (September 2017). “Primals as Paradigm.” Invited presentation. Leverage Research. Oakland, CA.
Clifton, J. D. W. (January 2017). “The Pragmatic Value of Primal World Beliefs.” Invited presentation. American Philosophical Association Annual Conference, Baltimore, MD.
Clifton, J. D. W. (April 2014). “Primal World Beliefs: An Introduction.” Invited presentation. Stanford University. Stanford, CA.
Clifton, J. D. W. (November 2014). “The Neighborhood as Commons.” Invited presentation. The International Association for the Study of the Commons. Bologna, Italy.
Clifton, J. D. W. (March, 2014). “Primal World Beliefs Research.” Invited presentation. University of Pennsylvania Fox Leadership Program. Philadelphia, PA.
Clifton, J. D. W. (February, 2011). “Neighborhood as Commons.” Invited speaker and session leader. National Trust for Historic Preservation Annual Conference. Buffalo, NY.
Smith, E. E. (2020, January 22). Open-minded about mindsets: Latest research reexamines how your beliefs powerfully shape your life. Jewish World Review. http://www.jewishworldreview.com/0120/mindset.php3
Newsela. (2019, October 23). Scientists thin their study of world beliefs can help people get along. Newsela. https://newsela.com/read/world-exciting-terrifying/id/2000000062/
Newsela. (2019, October 23). As Shakespeare said, the world is neither “good or bad, but thinking makes it so”. Newsela. https://4.files.edl.io/8466/05/16/20/195347-5b62e999-ded1-4c22-82c3-7da936073bbc.pdf
Pawlicki, R. (2019, October 15). Fearing for those who live in fear. Savannah Morning News. https://www.savannahnow.com/opinion/20191015/robert-pawlicki-column-fearing-for-those-who-live-in-fear
Pawlicki, R. (2019, October 15). Fearing for those who live in fear. Athens Banner-Herald. https://www.onlineathens.com/opinion/20191015/robert-pawlicki-column-fearing-for-those-who-live-in-fear
Smith, E. E. (2019, October 8). Beliefs about the world can shape a psyche. Sarasota Herald Tribune. https://www.heraldtribune.com/entertainmentlife/20191008/beliefs-about-world-can-shape-psyche
Smith, E. E. (2019, October 6). World ‘is neither good nor bad, but thinking makes it so’: So what, then, are your primal thoughts about the world? Knowing can ease your path. Star Tribune. http://e.startribune.com/Olive/ODN/StarTribune/shared/ShowArticle.aspx?doc=MST%2F2019%2F10%2F06&entity=Ar02202&sk=B89DBA34&mode=text&fbclid=IwAR0ZiKoXG8-s60vkk6kIm-Peio4US4D5_CWoL5aUCl97aXnwyDNsFQS4vt8
Smith, E. E. (2019, October 2). Is the world an exciting or a terrifying place? Your answer can powerfully shape your life and your political views, new research says. The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/2019/10/02/is-world-an-exciting-or-terrifying-place-your-answer-can-powerfully-shape-your-life-your-political-choices-new-research-says/
McQuaid, M. (Host). (2019). How do you see the world? Podcast with Jeremy Clifton. Making Psychology Work. https://www.michellemcquaid.com/podcast/see-world-podcast-jeremy-clifton/
Kall, R. (Host). (2018, December 7). Jer Clifton primal world beliefs. Rob Kall Bottom-up Show.
Hernandez, N. (Host). (2017). Interview with Jer Clifton. Community Matters. Radio show on KZUM.
Clifton’s August 2016 article on his personal blog, entitled “The Primal World Beliefs of Trump Supporters,” went viral, peaking at 10,000 views a day. Media outlets, such as the Huffington Post, picked it up.
Unrelated to research, after Clifton’s participation in a subway rescue was captured on video in 2011, the story garnered over 17 million online and television views. National appearances include the Dr. Drew Show and Fox & Friends.
Non-Academic Professional Experience
- Strategic Planning Consultant. Habitat for Humanity Sri Lanka. Colombo, Sri Lanka. 6-9/2012.
- Strategic Planning Support. Habitat for Humanity International. CEO’s Office. Atlanta, Georgia. 9/2011-6/2012.
- Director of Volunteer & Non-profit Engagement. House of the Rock. Atlanta, Georgia. 2-9/2011.
- Director of Housing. Westminster Economic Development Initiative. Buffalo, New York. 4/2009-6/2010.
- Community Organizer. AmeriCorps VISTA with Houghton College. Buffalo, New York. 6/2007-4/2009.
- Firefighter. Houghton Volunteer Fire Department. Houghton, New York. 2005-2007.