We have adopted Aaron Beck’s theories of self beliefs and their impact on our mental wellness. We intuitively know that when we self bash our thoughts negatively impact feelings of wellness. Research supports this notion. Harsh judgmental attacks against our character harms, whether coming from others or from internal ruminations. Another set of beliefs also enhances or destroys mental wellness. Our primal beliefs about the world impact wellness. Primal world beliefs refer to our beliefs about the overall character of the world. In positive psychology, primal world beliefs are also referred to as primals.
In Aaron Beck’s “cognitive or primary triad lists a negative view of the world as one of the main characteristics of depression.” Alexander G Stahlmann and Willbald Ruch argue that “if we accept that viewing the world in a particular way contributes to sustaining a mental disorder, we must assume that worldviews sensibly affect how individuals think, feel, and act” (2022).
What are Primal World Beliefs?
Ronnie Janoff-Bulman, professor emerita of psychology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, suggested that “humans have hyper-globalized world schemas that influence how ambiguity is interpreted across domains” (Clifton & Yaden, 2021).
Janoff-Bulman theorizes in her inspirational book Shattered Assumptions that most children learn to rely on three basic assumptions:
- The world is benevolent
- The world is meaningful
- The self is worthy
T. Franklin Murphy wrote that “we have a complex schema of assumptions, more than Janoff-Bulman’s basic three. We develop a structured lens to disentangle the complexity of a chaotic world. Our assumptions individualize our view, creating a stabilizing foundation to guide predictions and availability of resources” (2020).
Alfred Adler suggests we need a fixed point “simply to orient ourselves in the chaos of existence.” He continues, “the advantage is that once we have assumed this fixed point we can categorize every sensation and every sentiment according to it” (2009).
Primal World Beliefs are Our Basic Beliefs about the World
Positive psychologists conceive “primals as falling along a continuous conceptual dimensions anchored by opposites such as interesting and boring” (Clifton, et al., 2019). Researchers further proposed six criteria necessary to identify primal world beliefs. Primals are simple. When put to words, they usually take the form of “the world is X” where X represents one or two basic words about the overall character of the world (e.g. the world is beautiful or dangerous).
Primal world beliefs do not describe the how or why the world came to be, but define what the world is like using the word “is” statements that illustrate a formidable quality of the world. Goal-relevant refers to perceived environmental conditions essential to our interests, needs, or values. Primals concern the world as a whole, considering all the complexities, the world, in general, typically can be described by a simple primal belief such as the world is safe (or dangerous).
Primals operate unconsciously, directing and influencing cognitions. If we unconsciously believe the world is safe we willing engage in opportunities beyond our comfort zone. If we believe the world is dangerous, we pull back and protect. Primals “dynamically direct attention: organize, simplify, filter, and fill in information; and guide action” (2019). Primals don’t quietly exist beneath the surface but are actively engaged in how we see and respond to life.
Highest Order Primal World Beliefs
Positive psychology research structured the primal world beliefs into a matrix. With the primary belief (Good vs. Bad) at the top, the three secondary beliefs beneath it, and a host of tertiary beliefs mostly belonging to one of the secondary beliefs.
While a half century of literature has strongly shown that various beliefs shape behavior and wellbeing, little early research had been conducted to systematically identify primal beliefs and their impact on psychological wellness. The primal belief matrix was designed through meticulous research conducted by Clifton, et al, in 2019. Clifton and his colleagues created a matrix, categorizing the primal world beliefs.
The World is Good or Bad
The world is good (or bad) is considered the primary primal belief. All other beliefs flow from this basic assumption about the world.
The primary belief that the world is good means that we perceive the world as a delightful place that is beautiful, fascinating, safe, abundant, full of meaning, improvable and getting better. Those that perceive the world as bad tend to see the world as miserable, dangerous, ugly, meaningless, barren, impossible to change, and getting worse. Believing the world is safe means typically the individual sees the world as safe, comfortable, stable, fair, and benign. The world rarely requires we protectively pull back from opportunity. The world is:
- Pleasurable (vs. miserable)
- Regenerative (vs. degenerative)
- Progressing (vs. declining)
- Harmless (vs. threatening)
- Cooperative (vs. competitive)
- Stable (vs. fragile)
- Just (vs. unjust)
Believing the world is enticing means we see the world as beautiful, fascinating, meaningful, bursting with opportunity, and worthy of exploration. The world strikes our souls with awe, rarely is there cause for boredom. The world is:
- Interesting (vs. boring)
- Beautiful (vs. ugly)
- Abundant (vs. barren)
- Worth Exploring (vs. not worth exploring)
- Meaningful (vs. meaningless)
- Improvable (vs. too hard to improve)
- Funny (vs. not funny)
The belief that the world is alive is believing that the world is animated by intention. Our intentions, desires, and hopes matter, interacting with the world. We matter; not just a speck of dust on a large rock, rotating around the sun. The world is:
- Intentional (vs. unintentional)
- Needs Me (vs. doesn’t need me)
- Interactive (vs. indifferent)
Five Tertiary Primals
Clifton and his colleagues also identified 5 tertiary primals that were unrelated to any of the secondary primal categories. They listed these as:
- Acceptable (vs. unacceptable)
- Changing (vs. static)
- Hierarchical (vs. nonhierarchical)
- Interconnected (vs. separable)
- Understandable (vs. too hard to understand)
Primal Beliefs and Character Strengths
New research, such as Clifton and colleagues (2019), provide evidence that “character strengths hope, gratitude, and curiosity correlate strongly with several primals, such as believing the world is a good, enticing, and interesting place” (Stahlmann & Ruch, 2022).
Other researchers found that “the primary primal good proved to be especially important important: believing the world is a good place correlated strongly with higher scores on agreeableness, extraversion, optimism, gratitude, curiosity, subjective well-being, and flourishing” (2022). We also can identify correlations between primal beliefs and E. Tory Higgins’ regulatory focus theory traits of promotion of prevention focus.
Stahlmann and Ruch explain that it is important to know “correlations of primals with all character strengths…because it allows us to design positive psychology interventions that develop specific character strengths their associated primals” (2022).
Practicing therapist utilize programs such as Beck’s cognitive therapy to change primals interfering with psychological growth.
Primals are stable but not unchangeable. Just as some forms of therapy has been shown to change primals so can good and bad environments. Trauma studies hypothesize that extreme trauma may shatter basic assumptions about the world, shaking previous held beliefs of the goodness of other people. Victimization may shatter beliefs in a safe world.
Working through these life shattering events, healing from the bleeding wounds of trauma, may require years or even decades. Primals may be tainted forever. However, many people emerge on the other side of trauma stronger than before, experiencing what psychologist call post traumatic growth.
A Few Closing Words on Primal World Beliefs
Beliefs matter. I’m not a proponent of overly positive beliefs. And certainly obnoxiously positive beliefs about the world may contain their own set of problems. Yet, pessimistic beliefs are not healthy either. Reality isn’t ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ Reality just is. The world is both safe and dangerous, depending on surrounding circumstances.
In other studies, more realistic views of the world have been associated with depression. This is called depressive realism in psychology. However, we need balance between belief and the behavior those beliefs motivate. If the belief motivates healthy action, then we are moving in the right direction. If the belief tends to stymie motivation, leaving us ruminating over the sorrows of a dull, dangerous world, then, perhaps, we should adjust our primals.
Some suggest an optimism grounded in reality—a realistic but hopeful perspective—should be the guiding principle. Maybe this is a wise perspective.
I believe studies in primal world believes have merit and may benefit many people struggling with depression and anxiety when therapy can intervene and modify those primary beliefs about the world.
Adler, Alfred (2009). Understanding Human Nature: The Psychology of Personality. Oneworld Publications; 3rd edition.
Clifton, J., & Yaden, D. (2021). Brief Measures of the Four Highest-Order Primal World Beliefs. Psychological Assessment, 33(12), 1267-1273.
Clifton, J., Baker, J., Park, C., Yaden, D., Clifton, A., Terni, P., Miller, J., Zeng, G., Giorgi, S., Schwartz, H., & Seligman, M. (2019). Primal World Beliefs. Psychological Assessment, 31(1), 82-99.
Murphy, T. Franklin (2020). Post Traumatic Growth. Psychology Fanatic. Published 6-23-2020. Accessed 6-27-2022.
Stahlmann, A., & Ruch, W. (2022). Primal world beliefs correlate strongly but differentially with character strengths. The Journal of Positive Psychology, OnlineFirst, 1-11.