Jer Clifton, Ph.D.
Jeremy D. W. Clifton–everyone calls him “Jer”–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 foundational 2019 Psychological Assessment article introducing primal world beliefs that was 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 Penn Positive Psychology Center, Director of the Penn Primals Project, and teaches research methods in the Penn 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 extremely basic (i.e., primal) world beliefs, which he tried (and failed) to get published over the next seven years while working in the non-profit sector.
In the meantime, 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 primal world beliefs 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 discovered belief in a just world research, realized that primals might be studied empirically, but few had been. Jer wrote a 2013 Master’s capstone that systematically identified (non-empirically) 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, the research team 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.
Now, the origins and implications of primal world beliefs are being explored by many researchers in various disciplines. Jer continues to study primal world beliefs as well, with recent papers looking at connections to wellbeing and to politics. But he has also become increasingly interested in measurement methodology and belief research more broadly.