I was recently listening to an interesting episode of the Hidden Brain podcast in which they discussed two “primal world views” that people can have. Primal world view is one’s basic orientation to the world in which we live, and at its core, this is either a negative or positive orientation. The interviewee, Jeremy Clifton, who did research on this, reduced the worldview to three dimensions:

  • The world is safe or dangerous.
  • The world is enticing or dull; it is abudant or barren.
  • The world is alive or mechanistic.

Hopefully it’s apparent that whichever way you are oriented is more basic and foundational than your political or religious views. There are Mormons on both ends of each of these spectra. There are both Republicans and Democrats (and any other party you care to list) on both ends as well.

What’s interesting about the research is that externalities do not create the world view. You might think that someone living in a high crime area would see the world as dangerous, and someone living in a low crime area would see it as safe, but this does not map. Likewise, you might assume that someone who is wealthy would see the world as abundant, while someone living in poverty would see it as barren, but again, that’s not the finding. You could imagine that someone religious would be more inclined to see the world as alive with God’s influence, and that an atheist would see it as mechanistic, but the atheist could be filled with wonder, while the religious person may see it as a system of rewards and punishments set up by God. The worldview trumps and colors these other perspectives.

Years ago I shared a personal story in a post about confabulation that I still find very instructive. When I was about 3 or 4 years old, my family was in a boating accident. I was very young to have clear memories, but it was a very big incident in a very short life, so it is one of my earliest memories. I remember being in the boat, then being on the shore, watching the capsized boat floating downriver, feeling the sun on my skin and thinking “I’m safe. Nothing will hurt me.” When I talked to my sister about this incident (she was 10 or 11 at the time), her memory is much more negative. “Nobody will help me. Nobody cares about my safety.” In her memory, I was screaming my head off. Trying to get to the bottom of it, I asked my mother what had happened, and well, I’ll point you back to that original post I linked if you want to know more because it was a twist I didn’t expect.

On some level, this discussion reminded me of Victor Frankl’s book the Man’s Search for Meaning. Frankl talks about people who were in the concentration camps, who had suffered terribly, and that after the war ended, some of them were filled with gratitude for every day while others were consumed with bitterness and misanthropic feelings. By the same token, their previous captors were similarly bifurcated; some devoted their lives to serving others, but some felt they had been mistreated and took it out on others.

If you want to be really reductive, you could say this is a optimist/pessimist divide, but of course, an issue is that nobody will cop to being a pessimist. Every pessimist claims to be a “realist.” We also view optimists with skepticism; are they just gullible and silly, ill-informed? The deeper look afforded by the three dimensions at the top of the post yield a much more robust perspective. Neither end is “right” or “wrong” exactly. The world is sometimes safe, and sometimes dangerous. The world (and or the choices we see available to us) can be abundant or barren. The world can sometimes feel like a thing of wonder, a beautiful complex mystery, and sometimes like a set of failing systems that can never be truly fixed, only tinkered with.

When I think about the different perspectives we are offered at Church, there are two completely opposite Primary songs that come to mind. Consider the worldview of each of these snippets:

Whenever I hear the song of a bird or look at the blue blue sky, Whenever I feel the rain on my face, or the wind as it rushes by, Whenever I touch a velvet rose or walk by a lilac tree, I’m glad that I live in this beautiful world Heavenly Father created for me.

My Heavenly Father Loves Me, Clara McMaster

In this Primary song, every line elicits the emotional response of living in an abundant world, a world that is full of the beauty of creation, and a feeling of safety and joy.

We live in a world where people are confused. If you don’t believe it, go and watch the news. We can get direction all along our way, if we heed the prophets–follow what they say.

Follow the Prophet, Duane Hiatt

In the Primary song Follow the Prophet, nearly every verse (not just the concluding one quoted) refers to a world of danger in which the only path of safety from physical harm and even death is to follow the prophets. (Arguably, the Adam verse is somewhat neutrally worded as is the Samuel verse). There is danger at every turn (lions, whales, sin, flooding, a barren desert) and the world is mechanistic: obey rules or perish. Generally speaking, any fear-mongering message is an effective way to manipulate those who have a “dangerous world” viewpoint, but I’m not convinced that fear-mongering creates fear; it just capitalizes on the fact that many people already expect danger. Other people just sort of shrug it off or see it as manipulative or hysterical catastrophizing.

I’ve had people say things to me at times about dangers they saw that I disagreed were dangers, and I didn’t adopt those fears just because they held them. I tried (mostly unsuccessfully) to take down the temperature of their worry. A vendor my business worked with went on a rant about how the “Mexicans were deceitful, sneaking into our country to steal our jobs, murder us, and destroy our way of life.” Since 80% of my business is working with people from Mexico, I assured him that this was not the case, and that he should probably change the channel or just turn the TV off. But given his mindset, maybe that wouldn’t change his viewpoint. I had someone tell me about a decade ago some similar things about Muslims, and when I asked how many Muslims she knew, she didn’t know any, whereas I knew and had worked with dozens. In her mind, every Muslim was either a terrorist or sympathizer. In mine, most Muslims are peaceful and family-oriented.

My positive exposures to these people might seem like it’s the reason I don’t fear them, but maybe I’m just a trusting person. Or maybe the reason I know people from other places is because I like to explore, to travel, and I see the world as safe. Correlation =/= causation.

Jeremy Clifton’s advice is to increase positivity, so his view at least (as a psychologist) is that it’s better to view the world as safe, abundant and alive, but he also points out one downside of this “positivity,” which is the tendency to blame the victim when things go wrong. If you believe the world is mostly just and good, you may also instinctively feel that if it goes badly for someone, that’s their own fault since it’s working out fine for you. And obviously that’s self-serving claptrap.

If you want to increase your positivity, he recommends taking a moment to deeply look at a leaf: its intricasies and beauty, the life coursing through it, what makes it unique. Then he says do this again with a second leaf, noticing what’s new and different. Then ponder the thousands of leaves on each tree, in their uniqueness and beauty, then the number and varieties of trees in the world. He said to do this any time you get caught in a negative thought pattern (or listening to too many negative news podcasts, for example). The activity reminds me of that first Primary song, one that I often thought of on my weekly nature walks (something my parents always did that I enjoy, surveying the different plants on our property on Sunday afternoon–what’s blooming, what’s dormant, where there are birds’ nests).

  • What is your primal worldview across these three dimensions?
  • Can you think of examples of others’ worldviews? Were they the same as yours or different?
  • Have you made efforts to increase your own positivity?
  • Overall, do you hear Church doctrine presented from a positive lens or a negative lens? Are there individual Church leaders who seem to adhere to one or the other ends of these spectra?