- Many parents believe erroneously that teaching children that the world is dangerous will help protect them.
- Positive psychology has researched the concept of "primal world beliefs," such as that the world is dangerous.
- Negative primal beliefs are associated with poorer health and well-being outcomes.
Imagine you’re asleep in bed at night. Suddenly, you’re awakened by the sound of a loud thud coming from the kitchen. What would you feel? And what would you do?
Odds are that your emotional reaction and your choice of action will depend on your interpretation—on what you think the noise means. If you come to believe that the source of the noise is benign (say, snow falling from the roof) then you are likely to feel indifferent and go back to sleep.
However, if you think that the noise is of a burglar at your window, then you’ll likely feel scared, angry, or both, and you will reach for the phone to call 911 or go get your gun. In other words, the same event can give rise to vastly differing emotions and behaviors. How can that be? Well, it is because your emotions and behaviors are not caused by the event, but by your interpretation—your belief—about what it means.
Psychologists have long known that our beliefs affect our emotions and behaviors. This is the fundamental premise of cognitive therapy. Much of the research in this area has focused on ways to use this notion to help psychotherapy clients. For example, the technique of cognitive restructuring, a staple of CBT, involves a systematic examination of the client’s self-talk in search of distorted thoughts to be challenged and corrected.
The psychiatrist Aaron Beck, a founder of cognitive therapy, wrote specifically about the importance of challenging clients’ core beliefs as a means of healing their psychological suffering. Beck focused on three types of negative core beliefs: helplessness, unlovability, and worthlessness.
The core belief of helplessness gives rise to self-talk centered on personal incompetence, vulnerability, and inferiority. Those who believe they are unlovable doubt their ability to receive adequate intimacy and attention. Those who believe they are worthless traffic in negative moral self-attributions, believing that they are insignificant, a burden to others, and without value.
Positive Psychology and Core Beliefs
More recently, psychologists have begun looking to apply the notion of core beliefs to new areas of interest. Specifically within the field of positive psychology, an interest has emerged in the concept of "primal world beliefs," defined as “beliefs about the world’s basic character" (for example: the world is dangerous). Research has shown that beliefs about the world organize into three clusters, or the "Big 3": safe vs. dangerous; enticing vs. dull; and alive vs. mechanistic. All three are continuous, normally distributed, and stable over time.
A 2021 article by fellow PT contributor Jeremy Clifton (University of Pennsylvania) and Peter Meindl (U.S. Military Academy, West Point) sought to explore whether such primal beliefs ("primals") may be linked to health and wellbeing outcomes. The authors first looked to confirm that people connect their primal beliefs to world outcomes (a phenomenon they termed “meta-beliefs”).
To that end, they studied a sample of 185 parents about their reasoning regarding primals. Results showed that many parents believed that seeing the world as dangerous would help their children cope, while seeing the world as safe would hinder their children.
A substantial number of parents reported a belief that the best way to prepare children to navigate life was to teach them that the world is in various ways a bad place: including that the world is full of physical threats; does not reward or punish fairly; is rarely that funny; is full of fragile situations that could easily fall apart; is cut-throat; and is getting worse.
Those parents who preferred positive primals tended to cluster around mildly—rather than extremely—positive ones, which implies the belief that while some positivity is productive, extreme positivity may not be.
The authors then conducted a second study to test these ideas. Participants in six separate samples (over 4,000 in total) were asked to endorse items from a list of positive and negative primals. Participants' responses were then correlated with their scores on several measures of wellbeing, including job success, depression, attempted suicide, life satisfaction, psychological flourishing, and negative emotion.
First, results refuted the notion that a negative worldview is protective: “Across six samples…negative primals were almost never associated with positive outcomes...more negative primals correlated with worse outcomes, often dramatically worse.“
Second, the results refuted the idea that moderate positivity is better than extreme positivity: Overwhelmingly, “seeing the world as very positive was associated with more positive outcomes than seeing the world as moderately positive.” Interestingly, positive primals correlated with better outcomes even in professions for which a dose of negativity would appear to be adaptive, such as law enforcement.
The authors are cautious in noting that their studies carry limitations. Principally, the correlational analysis at the heart of the study precludes causal inferences. Thus, we cannot jump to conclude that negative primals cause inferior outcomes.
Yet the results appear to put the lie to the popular notion that negative primals will protect parents or their children from harm. “Studies show that many parents seek to teach negative primals to their kids, associating negative primals with better life outcomes, but these associations do not hold. Across samples, work professions, and outcomes, negative primals were nearly always correlated with net negative outcomes.”
Moreover, given the existing literature on the causal effects of cognition on mental health and wellbeing, it is quite likely that future experimental and longitudinal studies will show a causal link between primals and life outcome, thus opening intriguing routes toward interventions targeting such primals.
In the meantime, the authors suggest, “Parents…might consider pausing any well-meaning efforts to teach negative primals to children. After all, children too cannot escape the world. The only choice that they, or any of us have, is the power of deciding our attitude towards being here."