A Psychologist Explains How This Protective Parental Instinct Might Be Hurting Children

Passing on a negative 'primal world belief' may distort your child’s worldview forever.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | June 20, 2022

A new study published in The Journal of Positive Psychology explains how teaching your children that the world is a dangerous place might not protect them in the way you think. In fact, cultivating a negative 'primal world belief' brings with it a host of potential mental health issues.

Psychologist Jeremy CIifton describes 'primal world beliefs' as our most basic beliefs about the world.

"Primal world beliefs are not beliefs about accidental world qualities such as 'the world is composed of 118 chemical elements.' Instead, they are beliefs about the world's most basic and psychologically important characteristics – like how dangerous it is, how fun it is, how stable it is, and so forth," explains the lead author from the University of Pennsylvania.

Through previous research, literature reviews, and empirical studies, Clifton and his team of researchers concluded that humans have over two dozen primal world beliefs. However, most of these beliefs cluster into three main primal world belief categories. They are:

  1. The world is a safe place (as opposed to a dangerous one). This determines to what extent people believe the world to be full of threats.
  2. The world is an enticing place (as opposed to a dull one). This determines individuals' willingness to engage with the world through cognition – i.e, doing what they find interesting, beautiful, and meaningful (or not).
  3. The world is alive (as opposed to mechanistic). This determines whether people view the world as full of intention and as a place that needs one's help and intervention.

To explain how much power a primal world belief can exercise over an individual's life, Clifton urges us to remember a time we were in a place we hated and then to imagine being stuck there forever.

"Those of us who see the world as dangerous, dull, and mechanistic are stuck in a place they hate their whole lives," he explains. "The downstream effects on behavior and well-being are enormous."

Clifton's current research studied the associations of participants' primal world beliefs with various life outcomes, such as job success, job satisfaction, depression, life satisfaction, and overall flourishing.

The study found that regardless of occupation, negative primal world beliefs were almost never associated with better outcomes. Instead, they predicted less success, less job and life satisfaction, worse health, dramatically less flourishing, more negative emotion, and more depression.

"We found that people want to pass on a lot of different primal world beliefs to their kids, including the belief that the world is dangerous and it is against them – and that may be a terrible parenting idea," Clifton explains.

According to Clifton, people who think the world is a terrible place genuinely believe it. They tend to think their negative beliefs protect them from disappointment and danger, make them better at their jobs, and make them care more about helping to solve the world's problems.

The truth, however, turns out to be very different. Previous studies have shown too that people who tend to see the world as dangerous overreact to threats and see threats that aren't there.

For anyone who might be struggling to live up to their full potential because of negative primal world beliefs, Clifton has the following advice:

"My advice for anyone interested in primal world beliefs and how they might be impacting their life or the life of their kids is to first find out what your primals are," he says. "The first step to getting out of prison is to recognize you're in prison."

A full interview with psychologist Jeremy Clifton discussing his research can be found here: Are you living in the self-made prison of your primal world beliefs?