Jeremy “Jer” D. W. Clifton

Jer currently studies primals as a Doctoral Candidate (ABD) in psychology under Dr. Martin Seligman at the University of Pennsylvania. Also on Jer’s dissertation committee is Dr. Rob DeRubeis and Dr. Angela Duckworth as chair. Jer will defend May 2020.

Main Research Interest

I am interested in the possibility that individual differences in perceived habitat-wide constraints (i.e., primal world beliefs) shape much of who the individual is and becomes in life (i.e., an array of personality and wellbeing variables that can be understood as habitat-wide patterns of thought, action, and outcomes). – Jer


Jer spent the first 18 years of his life in Taiwan and Hong Kong the child of Baptist missionaries. Houghton College offered Jer their top merit-based scholarship and he completed a BA there in 2007 in Philosophy. 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 a couple local urban neighborhood turnarounds. Other highlights include starting a homeownership program, a philosophy club of gangsters, a refugee soccer league, and 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 provided the structure Habitat used for the 2014-2018 global five-year “Building Impact” strategy and managed the national planning process for Habitat Sri Lanka. While in Atlanta, Jer also experienced momentary fame after rescuing a passenger on a subway.

By 2013, Jer’s manuscript on primals had been rejected by 60 publishers. However, while earning a Masters of 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 13 primals that might be conducive to wellbeing. This work attracted funding from Templeton and resulted in 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 10 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 2-week, 9-month, and 19-month test retests, and analyzed results via sophisticated clustering techniques. In total, over seventy researchers were involved.

In 2018, eleven co-authors wrote up and published the results in Psychological Assessment, the top peer-reviewed psychology measurement journal. With the help of a 500 page online supplemental, this paper introduces 26 primal world beliefs, suggest potential for sweeping theoretical implications, and identify eight priority areas for further primals research, including clinical, positive, and developmental psychology. They conclude as follows:

Primals have been historically understudied. In this paper, we sought to chart all major primals and produce a psychometrically strong measure. Rather than assuming those who share our planet share our primals, we can use the Primals Inventory to see the world from the perspective of others in order to better understand their actions. Thus far, our use of the Primals Inventory suggests primals vary from person to person, are stable, and are highly predictive of numerous behaviors. One explanation that deserves further investigation is that, 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 October, 2018)

  • Doctoral Candidate (ABD), University of Pennsylvania, Psychology
  • Masters of Psychology, University of Pennsylvania, 2016. GPA 3.90
  • Masters of Applied Positive Psychology, University of Pennsylvania, 2013, GPA 3.95
  • Bachelor of Arts, Houghton College, 2007, Philosophy, Magna Cum Laude, GPA 3.72
Peer-Reviewed Publications

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. (2018, October 8). Primal world beliefs. Psychological Assessment. Advance online publication.   Full-text PDF available here.

Oakerson, R. J., & Clifton, J. D. W. (2017). The Neighborhood as Commons: Reframing Neighborhood Decline. Fordham Urban Law Journal, 44, 411-450.   Full-text PDF available here.

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. (submitted). Validity vs. reliability trade-offs in scale-creation decisions.

In Prep

Clifton, J. D. W. (in prep). A short form measure of primal world beliefs.

Clifton, J. D. W. (in prep). What beliefs might possible explain personality?

Clifton, J. D. W. (in prep). The evolutionary origins of primals: The human capacity for flexibility in primal world beliefs as a signature adaptation.

Clifton, J. D. W. (in prep). The view that the world is in fact wonderful explains optimistic explanatory style.

Clifton, J. D. W., Osher, A., Moon, P., & Yaden, D.B. (in prep). A framework for organizing life experiences: Three dimensions that define eight experience types.

Clifton, J. D. W. (in prep). Groupthink built group cohesion in the face of ‘individualthink’.

Yaden, D. B., & Clifton, J.D.W. (in prep). A short form measure of spiritual experiences.


Co-Principle Investigator with Dr. Martin Seligman. (2014-2015). $199,610. Planning a Primals Research Program. Templeton Religion Trust, #0049.

  • Founded initiative; defined “primals”; set research priorities; directed activities;
  • Designed & submitted $4.7 million grant proposal
  • Established partnerships at Tsinghua University & Stanford University
  • Managed 10 advisors, 29 consultants, and 22 interns
  • Wrote/edited 415 page literature review examining 6 disciplines written by 5 experts
  • Created Primals Archive of 1,715 explicitly stated primals from 358 major historical texts
  • Conducted 12 focus groups across different religions and cultures
  • Analyzed 840 most used adjectives in American English
  • Analyzed 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
Select Presentations

Clifton, J. D. W. (September 2017). “Primals as Paradigm.” Leverage Research Lab Talk. 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.” University of Pennsylvania, Fox Leadership Program, Philadelphia, PA.

Clifton, J. (February 2011). “Neighborhood as Commons” National Trust for Historic Preservation Annual Conference. Invited Speaker & Session Leader. Buffalo, NY. Presented with co-author & Hon. Henry Nowak, New York State Supreme Court Judge

Popular Press

Primals research has popular appeal. For example, Clifton’s August 2016 post 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. However, despite earlier appearances to discuss primals research, such as Nick Hernandez’s Community Matters on KZUM, Clifton continues to avoid press appearances and is focusing on research.

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, Houghton College, Buffalo, New York, 6/2007-4/2009
  • Firefighter. Houghton Volunteer Fire Department. Houghton, New York. 2005-2007.