Psychologists have spent decades studying how our core beliefs shape how we feel and what we do: If you believe your future is bleak, you’re more likely to be depressed; if you have a “growth mindset” — you think people can change — you’re more likely to put effort into what you do and grow. But the empirical research focuses on our beliefs about ourselves and our future. Psychologists haven’t looked closely at the beliefs we have about the world we live in — like whether it’s a good place, or a meaningless one — and how those beliefs affect our well-being.
That’s changing. New research, published in the academic journal Psychological Assessment, reveals that the story we tell ourselves about the world can shape us in profound ways. The researchers, led by Jeremy Clifton of the University of Pennsylvania, found that our “primal world beliefs,” as they call them, or “primals” for short, predict how happy or depressed we are, how trusting we are in relationships, and the decisions we make, including who we voted for in the last election.
“We psychologists have never seriously considered the possibility that a great deal of what we do and feel in life is a reaction to beliefs about the world we didn’t know we have,” Clifton said.
Though some psychologists have in the past identified a few world beliefs that influence people, Clifton’s work represents the first attempt to catalogue every major primal world belief that people might hold. Over the past five years, he and his team analyzed over 80,000 tweets, combed through the literary, religious, and historical texts of cultures around the world, studied the influential movies and speeches of the last 100 years, and surveyed hundreds of people to determine what sort of world we think this is.