Date of Award

2020

Degree Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Graduate Group

Psychology

First Advisor

Martin E. Seligman

Abstract

If behavior is influenced by the perceived character of situations, many disciplines that study behavior may eventually need to take into account individual differences in the perceived character of the world. In the first effort to empirically map these perceptions, subjects varied on 26 dimensions, called primal world beliefs or primals, such as the belief that the world is abundant. This dissertation leverages the first comprehensive measure of primals to further discussions in political, developmental, clinical, and positive psychology. Chapter I challenges the consensus that political conservativism is distinguished by the belief that the world is dangerous. Results suggest previous research relied on a measure highlighting dangers conservatives fear and neglecting dangers liberals fear, when both perceive the world as almost equally dangerous (8 samples; total N=3,734). A novel account of political ideology is proposed based on more predictive primals. Chapter II discusses how primals might develop. The author distinguishes retrospective theories—where primals reflect the content of past experiences—from interpretive theories—where primals act as lenses for interpreting experiences while remaining uninfluenced by them—and suggests twelve ways each theory’s relative merit can be empirically tested. A novel comprehensive framework for considering experiences in relation to any new construct is also proposed. Chapter III explores primals’ wellbeing-related correlates. By showing that many parents aim to teach negative primals to their children, some prevalence for meta-beliefs (i.e., beliefs about beliefs) associating negative primals with positive outcomes is established. Study 2 tests these meta-beliefs in six samples (total N=4,535) in regards to eight outcomes: job success, job satisfaction, emotion, depression, suicide, physical health, life satisfaction, and flourishing. Results indicate that negative primals are almost always associated with modestly to dramatically worse outcomes, across and within professions. In addition to filling a literature gap, and establishing bases for future comparison studies, findings could be used to strengthen interventions by undermining counterproductive meta-beliefs. Findings also underscore the urgent need for further research on the impact of primal world beliefs—teaching children or anyone that the world is a bad place in order to protect or prepare them may be ill-advised.

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