Primal world beliefs (“primals”) capture individuals’ basic understanding of what sort of world this is. How do children develop beliefs about the nature of the world? Is the world a good place? Safe or dangerous? Enticing or dull? Primals were initially introduced in social and personality psychology to understand beliefs about the world as a whole that may influence well-being and personality. This article introduces the concept of primals to developmental scientists and reviews preliminary research examining how primals relate to sociodemographic and well-being indicators. The article then situates the concept of primals in some classic developmental theories to illustrate testable hypotheses these theories suggest regarding how primals develop. Understanding how individuals develop basic beliefs about the nature of the world deepens insights into the human experience, including how malleable these beliefs might be and how they may be influenced by, and in turn influence, other domains of development.

1.
Alink, L. R. A., Cyr, C., & Madigan, S. (2019). The effect of maltreatment experiences on maltreating and dysfunctional parenting: A search for mechanisms. Development and Psychopathology, 31(1), 1–7.
2.
Bandura, A., Ross, D., & Ross, S. A. (1961). Transmission of aggression through imitation of aggressive models. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 63, 575–582.
3.
Belsky, J., & van IJzendoorn, M. H. (2017). Genetic differential susceptibility to the effects of parenting. Current Opinion in Psychology, 15, 125–130.
4.
Blake, P. R., McAuliffe, K., Corbit, J., Callaghan, T. C., Barry, O., Bowie, A., Kleutsch, L., Kramer, K. L., Ross, E., Vongsachang, H., Wrangham, R., & Warneken, F. (2015). The ontogeny of fairness in seven societies. Nature, 528(7581), 258–261.
5.
Bowlby, J. (1969). Attachment and loss. Vol. 1. Basic Books.
6.
Bronfenbrenner, U., & Morris, P. A. (2006). The bioecological model of human development. In R. M.Lerner, & W.Damon (Eds), Handbook of child psychology: Theoretical models of human development (pp. 793–828). Wiley.
7.
Chen, X., McElwain, N. L., Berry, D., & Emery, H. T. (2019). Within-person fluctuations in maternal sensitivity and child functioning: Moderation by child temperament. Journal of Family Psychology, 33(7), 857–867.
8.
Clark, D. A., & Beck, A. T. (2010). Cognitive theory and therapy of anxiety and depression: Convergence with neurobiological findings. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 14(9), P418–P424.
9.
Clifton, J. D. W. (2020). Testing if primal world beliefs reflect experiences—At least some experiences identified ad hoc. Frontiers in Psychology, 11, 1145.
10.
Clifton, J. D. W., Baker, J. D., Park, C. L., Yaden, D. B., Clifton, A. B. W., Terni, P., Miller, J. L., Zeng, G., Giorgi, S., Schwartz, H. A., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2019). Primal world beliefs. Psychological Assessment, 31(1), 82–99.
11.
Clifton, J. D., & Kerry, N. (2022). Belief in a dangerous world does not explain substantial variance in political attitudes, but other world beliefs do. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 14(5).
12.
Clifton, J.D.W., & Kim, E. S. (2020). Healthy in a crummy world: Implications of primal world beliefs for health psychology. Medical Hypotheses, 135, 109463.
13.
Clifton, J. D. W., & Meindl, P. (2022). Parents think—incorrectly—that teaching their children that the world is a bad place is likely best for them. Journal of Positive Psychology, 17(2), 182–197.
14.
Clifton, J.D.W., & Yaden, D. B. (2021). Brief measures of the four highest-order primal world beliefs. Psychological Assessment, 33(12), 1267–1273.
15.
Crick, N. R., & Dodge, K. A. (1994). A review and reformulation of social information-processing mechanisms in children's social adjustment. Psychological Bulletin, 115(1), 74–101.
16.
Davoodi, T., & Clegg, J. M. (2022). When is cultural input central? The development of ontological beliefs about religious and scientific unobservables. Child Development Perspectives, 16(1), 34–40.
17.
Elam, K. K., Mun, C. J., Kutzner, J., & Ha, T. (2021). Polygenic risk for aggression predicts adult substance use disorder diagnoses via substance use offending in emerging adulthood and is moderated by a family-centered intervention. Behavior Genetics, 51(5), 607–618.
18.
Ellis, B. J., & Boyce, W. T. (2008). Biological sensitivity to context. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 17(3), 183–187.
19.
Fearon, R. M. P., & Roisman, G. I. (2017). Attachment theory: Progress and future directions. Current Opinion in Psychology, 15, 131–136.
20.
Fraley, R. C. (2019). Attachment in adulthood: Recent developments, emerging debates, and future directions. Annual Review of Psychology, 70, 401–422.
21.
Hafer, C. L., & Bègue, L. (2005). Experimental research on just-world theory: Problems, developments, and future challenges. Psychological Bulletin, 131(1), 128–167.
22.
Harris, P. L. (2018). Children's understanding of death: From biology to religion. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, 373(1754), 20170266.
23.
Henry, D. A., Miller, P., Votruba-Drzal, E., & Parr, A. K. (2019). Safe and sound? Exploring parents' perceptions of neighborhood safety at the nexus of race and socioeconomic status. Advances in Child Development and Behavior, 57, 281–313.
24.
Huesmann, R. (2018). An integrative theoretical understanding of aggression: A brief exposition. Current Opinion in Psychology, 19, 119–124.
25.
Janoff-Bulman, R. (1989). Assumptive worlds and the stress of traumatic events: Applications of the schema construct. Social Cognition, 7(2), 113–136.
26.
Kazantzis, N., Luong, H. K., Usatoff, A. S., Impala, T., Yew, R. Y., & Hofmann, S. G. (2018). The processes of cognitive behavioral therapy: A review of meta-analyses. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 42(4), 349–357.
27.
Kerry, N., White, K. C., O’Brien, M., Perry, L. M., & Clifton, J. D. W. (2023). Despite popular intuition, positive primal world beliefs poorly reflect indicators of privilege, including wealth, health, sex, and neighborhood safety. Journal of Personality.
28.
Kornienko, O., Ha, T., & Dishion, T. J. (2020). Dynamic pathways between rejection and antisocial behavior in peer networks: Update and test of confluence model. Development and Psychopathology, 32(1), 175–188.
29.
Kusché, C. A. (2020). The PATHS curriculum: Thirty-five years and counting. In D. W.Nangle, C. A.Erdley, & R. A.Schwartz-Mette (Eds), Social skills across the life span: Theory, assessment, and intervention (pp. 201–219). Elsevier.
30.
Lakoff, G., & Johnson, M. (2003). Metaphors we live by. University of Chicago Press.
31.
Lane, J. D. (2018). Children's belief in counterintuitive and counterperceptual messages. Child Development Perspectives, 12(4), 247–252.
32.
Lansford, J. E., Godwin, J., Al-Hassan, S. M., Bacchini, D., Bornstein, M. H., Chang, L., Chen, B.-B., Deater-Deckard, K., Di Giunta, L., Dodge, K. A., Malone, P. S., Oburu, P., Pastorelli, C., Skinner, A. T., Sorbring, E., Steinberg, L., Tapanya, S., Alampay, L. P., Uribe Tirado, L. M., … Zelli, A. (2018). Longitudinal associations between parenting and youth adjustment in twelve cultural groups: Cultural normativeness of parenting as a moderator. Developmental Psychology, 54(2), 362–377.
33.
Lerner, M. J., & Miller, D. T. (1978). Just world research and the attribution process: Looking back and ahead. Psychological Bulletin, 85(5), 1030–1051.
34.
Lionetti, F., Aron, A., Aron, E. N., Burns, G. L., Jagiellowicz, J., & Pluess, M. (2018). Dandelions, tulips and orchids: Evidence for the existence of low-sensitive, medium-sensitive and high-sensitive individuals. Translational Psychiatry, 8(1), 24.
35.
Ludwig, V. U., Crone, D. L., Clifton, J. D. W., Rebele, R. W., Schor, J. A., & Platt, M. L. (2023). Resilience of primal world beliefs to the initial shock of the COVID-19 pandemic. Journal of Personality, 91(3), 838–855.
36.
Masten, A. S., & Cicchetti, D. (2010). Developmental cascades. Development and Psychopathology, 22(3), 491–495.
37.
McDonald, K. L., & Asher, S. R. (2018). Peer acceptance, peer rejection, and popularity: Social-cognitive and behavioral perspectives. In W. M.Bukowski, B.Laursen, & K. H.Rubin (Eds), Handbook of peer interactions, relationships, and groups (pp. 429–446). Guilford Press.
38.
Piaget, J. (1954). The construction of reality in the child. Routledge.
39.
Rege, M., Hanselman, P., Solli, I. F., Dweck, C. S., Ludvigsen, S., Bettinger, E., Crosnoe, R., Muller, C., Walton, G., Duckworth, A., & Yeager, D. S. (2021). How can we inspire nations of learners? An investigation of growth mindset and challenge-seeking in two countries. American Psychologist, 76(5), 755–767.
40.
Rudolph, K. D., Lansford, J. E., & Rodkin, P. (2017). Interpersonal theories of developmental psychopathology. In D.Cicchetti (Ed), Developmental psychopathology (pp. 243–311). Wiley.
41.
Sameroff, A. (2009). The transactional model. In A.Sameroff (Ed), The transactional model of development: How children and contexts shape each other (pp. 3–21). American Psychological Association.
42.
Sattler, F. A., Eickmeyer, S., & Eisenkolb, J. (2020). Body image disturbance in children and adolescents with anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa: A systematic review. Eating and Weight Disorders - Studies on Anorexia, Bulimia and Obesity, 25(4), 857–865.
43.
Schwartz, S. H. (1992). Schwartz Value Survey. APA PsycTests.
44.
Seider, S., Clark, S., Graves, D., Kelly, L. L., Soutter, M., El-Amin, A., & Jennett, P. (2019). Black and Latinx adolescents’ developing beliefs about poverty and associations with their awareness of racism. Developmental Psychology, 55(3), 509–524.
45.
Spencer, M. B. (1986). Risk and resilience: How Black children cope with stress. Social Science, 71(1), 22–26.
46.
Stahlmann, A. G., Hofmann, J., Ruch, W., Heinz, S., & Clifton, J.D.W. (2020). The higher-order structure of primal world beliefs in German-speaking countries: Adaptation and initial validation of the German Primals Inventory (GPI-66). Personality and Individual Differences, 163, 110054.
47.
Thomas, K. J. (2022). A dark lens or a dark world? Conceptualising justice capital. International Journal of Psychology, 57(2), 190–198.
48.
Tomasello, M. (2016). Cultural learning redux. Developmental Psychology, 87(3), 643–653.
49.
Turaga, R. M. R., Howarth, R. B., & Borsuk, M. E. (2010). Pro-environmental behavior: Rational choice meets moral motivation. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1185(1), 211–224.
50.
Wellman, H. M. (2018). Theory of mind: The state of the art. European Journal of Developmental Psychology, 15(6), 728–755.
51.
Woolley, J. D., & Kelley, K. A. (2020). “When something like a ladybug lands on you”: Origins and development of the concept of luck. Developmental Psychology, 56(10), 1866–1878.
52.
Zuberi, A. (2018). Feeling safe in a dangerous place: Exploring the neighborhood safety perceptions of low-income African American youth. Journal of Adolescent Research, 33(1), 90–116.
You do not currently have access to this content.