The 26 Primal World Beliefs

If you’ve taken the 99-question primals survey and got your scores, this is where to start learning more about them. If not, STOP, go take the survey, and come back.

What are primal world beliefs?

It’s easy to see how your beliefs about a place affect what you do and think while in that place. For example, if you see a place as dangerous, you’re more alert, look around more, and may keep a hand on your phone. But what if you see the whole world as dangerous? And that’s just one belief about the world. What if you have lots? If so, then much about each person’s personality and wellbeing may result from beliefs you don’t even know you have.

Dr. Martin Seligman has been Dr. Clifton’s principal advisor throughout this research process.

It turns out that most people—and probably you, too—hold 22 distinct beliefs about the world as a whole. That’s a lot. Fortunately, most of these cluster into 3 overarching beliefs called Safe, Enticing, and Alive. In turn, these 3 overarching beliefs cluster into 1 overarching belief about whether the world is a fundamentally good or bad place, called Good. Researchers call these 26 beliefs primals or primal world beliefs.

In other words, primals are your gut-level answers to the question, “What sort of world is this?” Each one can be explored in the drop-down menu at the top of the page under “The 26 Beliefs.”

How We Identified Primals

We began by carefully defining what does and does not count as a primal. We then conducted 10 projects to identify potential beliefs:

Textual Analysis
  •  We analyzed 80,677 tweets about the world as a whole from a database of 2.24 billion tweets.
  • We examined and organized 1,727 quotes from 358 of the most influential texts in global human history (treatises, sacred texts, films, political speeches, and novels).
  • We classified the 840 most-used adjectives in contemporary American English based on a database of 560 million words.
Descriptions of the world on Twitter. Size indicates frequency.
Focus Groups
  • We conducted 10 focus groups among American adherents of the four major world religions (Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism).
  • Partners at Tsinghua University in Beijing conducted 2 focus groups in Chinese contexts.
Literature Review
  •  Five experts compiled a 415-page review of six academic disciplines: psychology, philosophy, political science, cultural anthropology, art history, and comparative religion.
  • We conducted a systematic process to identify primals that are theoretically relevant to 24 character strengths and 10 positive emotions.
Conceptual Analysis 
  •  We hosted a retreat at the University of Pennsylvania with some of the world’s top psychologists and thinkers. 
  • Tsinghua partners in Beijing conducted expert interviews and hosted a similar retreat of eminent scholars in China.
  • We managed a five-stage, iterative process to create a primals classification involving 75 drafts and input from 70 researchers around the world.
2014 Primals Research Retreat. Back row (left to right): Dr. David Sloan Wilson (Binghamton), Dr. Paul Rozin (UPenn), Dr. Chris Stewart (Templeton), David Yaden (UPenn), Dr. Richard Reeves (Brookings). Middle row: Dr. James Pawelski (UPenn), Dr. Alan Fiske (UCLA), Dr. Robert DeRubeis (UPenn), Dr. Chandra Sripada (Michigan), Dr. Jess Miller (UPenn), Dr. Crystal Park (UConn). Front row: Dr. Alia Crum (Stanford), Dr. Jer Clifton (UPenn), Dr. Carol Dweck (Stanford)

Through these 10 projects, we identified many candidates for primal world beliefs. Then we used a variety of statistical methods to determine how all these candidate primals clustered within actually people, which one’s were statistically redundant, which ones were not psychologically meaningful, and so forth.

In 2019, we published our results in Psychological Assessment, the world’s most prestigious psychology measurement journal, to demonstrate that we’re measuring something real. Our paper makes the following two conclusions:

  • First, the Primals Inventory (the 99-question version) is a robust, scientifically validated measurement tool.
  • Second, primals may exert an enormous influence on human behavior.

Find the free full-text version of the foundational 2019 paper here.

For all pages we created to describe each primal, UPenn Primals Project staff carefully selected images to capture that view of the world. This one is for the belief the world is dangerous (i.e., low Safe world belief). All primals concern our assumptions about what probably lies beneath the surface.

Why do primals matter?

Psychologists know that a person’s beliefs about a place influence his/her behavior while in that place. But what psychologists hadn’t realized is that humans also have beliefs about the world as a whole—as if the world was one giant place. In theory, these beliefs are capable of explaining much of the differences in people’s personalities and wellbeing. In fact, well-established psychological theories suggest they should explain these differences or at least part of them. However, in order for that to be possible, primals must (a) vary a lot from person to person (because personality varies a lot, too); (b) stay pretty much the same for each person over time (because personality does, too); and (c) strongly correlate with the wellbeing and personality variables they supposedly cause.

Some original members of the primals research team taking a hike together on a section of the the Appalachian Trail in the Summer of 2014. (Left to right: Alicia Clifton, Taylor Kreiss, Jess Miller, Jer Clifton, Sophia Dominguez, and Isaac Garfunkel)

Jer and the research team found that all three of these conditions hold. First, primals vary greatly from person to person, even among those sharing seemingly the exact same local environments, like siblings who grew up in the same household or friends from the same town. Second, in several longitudinal studies, we also found that primals are highly stable over time. Third, primals are very predictive of how people live their lives. For example, there are large correlational relationships between seeing the world as Good and being an optimistic person, seeing the world as Safe and being a calm person, seeing the world as Enticing and exploring it, and seeing the world as Alive and finding meaning in life.

However, we do not yet know what all these relationships mean. There are two basic theories:

  • First, people have different, largely innate traits, including optimism, neuroticism, and curiosity, and these traits cause them to see the world the way they do. If so, primals are interesting but aren’t that big a deal. They are just a symptom of traits we already know people have.
  • Second, much of human behavior is a reaction to what sort of world you think you are in, defined by your primal world beliefs. For example, optimists and pessimists are realists who happen to disagree about the sort of world this is. Curious people are curious because they see the world as abundant and interesting. Calm people are calm because they tend to see the world as pretty safe, and so forth. But, because most of us assumed that those who share our planet share our primals, it took researchers a long time to figure this out. If so, correcting that assumption, mapping humanity’s primals, creating a language to discuss primals, and a tool to measure them, represents a major breakthrough.

We don’t know yet which of these theories is right. Both are entirely plausible. But everyone agrees that primals deserve a lot more research, and that is now happening.

So, as you explore your primals, feel free to contact us to share your thoughts and ideas. We are also looking for research collaborations.

Our sense is that we have just scratched the surface.