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 are Dr. Rob DeRubeis and Dr. Angela Duckworth as chair. Jer will defend May 2020.

Main Research Interest

I am interested in the possibility that an individual’s reactions to differences in perceived habitat-wide constraints (i.e., primal world beliefs) shape much of who the individual is and becomes in life. – Jer


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. Other 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 used 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. 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. In total, over seventy researchers were involved.

In 2019, eleven co-authors wrote up and published the results in Psychological Assessment, the top peer-reviewed psychology measurement journal. With the help of a five-hundred-page online supplemental, 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)

  • Doctoral Candidate (ABD), University of Pennsylvania, Psychology
  • 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
Peer-Reviewed Publications

Clifton, J. D., & Kim, E. S. (2020). Healthy in a crummy world: Implications of primal world beliefs for health psychology. Medical Hypotheses, 135, 109463. 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. Full text PDF available here.

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. 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.

In Press

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. (in press). Happy in a crummy world: Implications of primal world beliefs for increasing well-being through positive psychology interventions. Journal of Positive Psychology.

Clifton, J. D. W. (in press). Testing if primals reflect experiences—At least some experiences one researcher happened to think up. Frontiers in Psychology.

Stahlmann, A. G., Hofmann, J., Ruch, W., Heinz, S., & Clifton, J. D. W. (in press). 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.


Clifton, J. D. W. (submitted). Unexpected primal world beliefs underlie political ideology.

In Prep

Clifton, J. D. W. (in prep). Which beliefs could explain personality?

Clifton, J. D. W. (in prep). Do primal world beliefs reflect the individual’s objective experience of the world?

Clifton, J. D. W. (in prep). Do low expectations of the world contribute to success and wellbeing?

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

Clifton, J. D. W. (in prep). The evolutionary origins of primals: The capacity for flexible primals among signature human adaptations.

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
  • 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
Invited Presentations

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

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