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?
I listened to that episode too! And I was surprised by how much it affected me. The idea that two people can experience the same good or bad thing, read the same book or historical information, and come away with very different conclusions seems obvious, but is profoundly helpful in understanding how people in my life are responding differently as they move through life and experiences with the church. I was hoping to hear more about how possible it is to intentionally change one’s primal beliefs, and where exactly these beliefs come from. That is hopefully a question of active research. I do feel that I am hardwired to worry, to see problems, and to believe that solutions are unlikely to work. But at the same time, I feel a deep wonder about the world and a conviction in the reality of goodness and morality. I am interested in seeing if I can shift my primal beliefs toward a place that makes life more joyful and meaningful.
If you’ve ever travelled outside of the United States, you discover very quickly that your worldview (whether you’re conservative, liberal, or non-political) is not at all typical of the views you encounter. And I would argue that if you’re from Utah you’re likely to encounter a different view of religion once you leave the Idaho – Utah – Arizona corridor.
I’m sure many of you have seen the data that illustrates how most people’s religion lines up with where they were born. Not a lot of Muslims in Japan and not a lot of Christians in Iran. And frankly, not a lot of Mormons east of the Mississippi.
None of this proves what’s right or wrong, true or false. But it sure makes me wonder if I am who I am due to where and when I was born. Having left the Church and the Republican Party, I feel like I’ve broken away from many much of that (full disclosure: I’m no Democrat either). But still, I realize I’m a product of my birth. For me that means that April 1st is both General Conference Saturday and the Final 4.
I really enjoyed that hidden brain episode. I see the world as safe, alive, abundant and enticing. But I have close family members who are different from me. I don’t entirely agree with the view that it’s either inborn or something we can be responsible to change. Our brain chemistry can be influenced by health, and that is something we often cannot control.
For instance, I have 2 children that see the world I’m entirely different ways. I have a son that’s social, friendly and interested in every one. People praise his good attitude in an almost worshipful way because he has a series of very difficult congenital defects and has had 14 surgeries. They imagine that his attitude is to his credit and that he should be upset all the time because of his twisted back. But the reality is his brain functions well because there are no health problems that involve his brain.
Another son has no friends and is antisocial. He rarely leaves the house. Most of his life he has slept (or appeared to sleep) most of the time. He would be angry or radiate anger all the time when awake. He would purposely avoid talking with people in many situations. His body appears just fine but he has endocrine dysfunctions that made it impossible to sleep until they were corrected as well as other conditions that cause fatigue and sleep apnea. Those dysfunctions went on for more than 10 years as we searched for treatments. Now he is recovering and he is much happier.
Meanwhile many people have judged him for his attitude imagining he could have chosen to be more positive. But really he couldn’t. When you perpetually can’t sleep you have good reasons to wish you were dead.
I have seen my husband go through depression and improve over time by exercising and taking medication.
I sit at church and hear people speak that have a formulaic check off the box approach to mental/spiritual health. They say, do what’s right and you will be blessed. (which means if you have problems you didn’t do what was right). They don’t understand that it’s a blessing to be here and be born that’s given no matter what you do. They don’t understand that your behavior doesn’t always control your happiness. Brain health determines how you are feeling at any particular time. Cognition such as prayer, faith and gratitude can be supportive. But being able to do it successfully is actually an effect of brain health you are blessed with, rather than the cause of positivity.
I forgive them. They know not what they do when they judge us each positively or negatively. As people get older they often learn these things. Suffering can bring a mature spirituality that accepts the reality that our world is not in our control, no matter how good we are.
Yet, after all these ruminations I have in general a positive attitude. I love the world I live in. I love gardening and helping people deal with the difficulties of life. I look forward to lots of positive opportunities. Why? Because I have been blessed with a healthy brain.
Very interesting post. Comparing myself to my spouse on the 3 dimensions:
1. I believe I generally see the world as a much safer place than my spouse does. I am willing to go places and try things that my spouse (at least initially) isn’t willing to do because it seems too dangerous. If I can convince my spouse to try something new, and they get some positive experiences around that new thing, then they often no longer see that particular thing as dangerous. For example, my spouse was initially very leery about me taking our kids skiing. I confess that skiing can be dangerous, but when proper precautions are taken, it isn’t that bad (again, remember, I see the world as safe). In any case, after observing our family safely returning from the slopes week after week and year after year, my spouse now sees the family ski trips as a positive thing. On the flip side, there have been occasions when my spouse has blocked me (us) from doing something they viewed as too dangerous, which probably actually was too dangerous, and saved us from the real potential for harm. For example, my spouse is very insistent on removing *all* visible possessions from our car and locking the doors whenever we park anywhere except our garage. This is kind of annoying to me sometimes (does someone really want to steal an empty Walmart grocery bag?), but it probably has saved us from having our car broken into one or more times.
2. I think that my spouse and I both generally see the world as exciting/abundant. We both look forward to experiencing all the world has to offer together, and this commonality is something that strengthens our relationship.
3. I think that I probably see the world as more alive, and my spouse sees it as more mechanistic, at least where religion comes into play. One of our children that is in college appears to be stepping away from the Church. My spouse is constantly badgering this child to “follow the formula”: read scriptures, ponder, them, and pray. This formula really hasn’t worked for me though I do sometimes feel like I sometimes experience God in other random ways. My spouse also frequently places this child’s name on the prayer roll of multiple temples–they seem to actually believe that the more temples a name is prayed over, the higher the chance that the prayer will be answered. I’m very careful not to criticize this practice–what’s the harm in doing this anyway?–but I’m skeptical of its value. On the flip side, my spouse is very comforted by their belief that God will carefully watch over them when they are following the Church’s formula when I sometimes wonder whether God cares about me at all.
Traveling outside the US exposes one to completely different norms, mores, and ways of thinking. Last year, I visited a sick brother in Bosnia for about 10 days. While there I temporarily forgot about liberal/conservative US politics. It was a completely different experience in Bosnia. There, people think along the lines of being Muslim Bosniak, Orthodox Serb, or Catholic Crotian. And within those three categories there are liberal and conservative variants. Many in Sarajevo have vivid memories of being under siege for nearly four years by Milosevic’s army. Nearly 330 shells were fired on Sarajevo each day. Just to go to the market, one risked getting hitting by a shell and getting severely wounded or dying. The country enjoys much more and stability today, but there are renewed worries that the Republika Srpska could try to break off from the country, thrusting it into renewed chaos. It puts things in perspective to travel abroad, for sure.
It is interesting to observe how worldviews can evolve over time – especially as people age. The majority of people in my family and social circles have become more cynical and pessimistic as they get older. Retirement seems to trigger feelings of pending doom that permeate political and spiritual viewpoints. After my father’s retirement, his outlook totally changed from being outgoing and adventurous to an obsession with managing risk in all aspects. He went from being a JFK democrat to a MAGA Trumper almost overnight. It was as if he flipped a switch that totally changed his outlook on life.
Aging boomers represent an interesting case study in changing primal worldviews. Perhaps the evolution towards a glass half empty approach explains the increasingly negative messages we hear from the Q15. It appears most of their recent talks emphasize the ever-increasing darkness they claim is covering the world. For example, LGBTQ, having doubts, asking difficult questions, studying church history, etc. equals bad. When is the last time you heard DHO or JRH deliver an optimistic message? I am still waiting for a conference talk that doesn’t utilize guilt as a motivator.
De Novo: It seems that when others around you are more enlightened than you are, when the world is moving past your values and assumptions, when others are rejecting what you take for granted, it’s much easier to dig in your heels and fight for an outdated view of people and life than it is to give up your comfort zone.
John W: Thanks for sharing that. I always find my mind opened by travel, and we’re actually going to be in Bosnia in May (as well as Slovenia, Croatia, and Montenegro). Our recent trip to Bucharest was also interesting, to read and hear stories of people my age who grew up with a communist dictator, and whose children sacrificed their lives…when I was a young adult… to topple a dictator.
mountainclimber: I think your comment about your spouse’s difference from you is interesting. I’ve read that it’s a byproduct of male privilege to be less wary in public. That’s not to say women aren’t adventurous or are pessimistic, but we are conditioned to be more vigilant of danger (particularly crime) because we are on average more physically vulnerable and more often targeted and also more often blamed as victims. For example, it is safer, as a woman, to travel with a man. But beyond that one consideration, it does sound like your wife is more mechanistic.
I feel like I can go either way on some of these, perhaps like I’m politically more independent (except that the current GOP is mostly unrecognizable to me). I try to see both sides of a situation. I don”t want to blunder into danger needlessly, but I also want to feel free and enjoy life, and I mostly expect the good. As Jesus said, we should be wise as serpents but harmless as doves.
So here’s my self-assessment: 1) 90% safe, 10% danger, I’m not booking a trip to Kyiv, but I do have a lot of friends say I travel to places they would never consider, (by contrast, my parents often talked about big cities as if they were Mad Max hellscapes, not my experience at all), 2) 100% enticing, 3) 70% alive, 30% mechanistic. This last one I think could also be framed as a spiritual vs. religious question. Do you see the wonder and magic in the world around us, or do you see it as resources to be harnessed, systems to be managed, structures to be navigated. Both are true. I just like seeing the world as a living thing, air that fills my lungs, wind that creates emotion in me, feeling grass under my feet.
Very interesting narrative and article; thank you for sharing. I think it would be interesting to see how these data compile in large urban/metropolitan cities. I (and mine) view the World in quite a positive, healthy way in a more rural, affluent area. However, as we “view” what seems to be happening in some of our large cities, we find ourselves saying “man, oh man…..let’s make sure that we never move back to a city environment; people seem to be turning feral there”. I’m sure that our perspective is skewed by what we view…we just don’t know how much. I have to say that having spent a great deal of time in Seoul, Korea (one of the largest cities in the World) I never felt threatened in any way there. Chicago? NYC? LA? St. Louis? etc. not so comfortable.
Alright, who gave De Novo a down vote? Folks, we have a pessimist in our midst. Now I’ll just give myself a down vote so you can’t get to me first.