Cynicism isn’t as smart as we think it is

In fiction, Sherlock’s cynicism is charming. In fact, his deep distrust might not serve him.
In fiction, Sherlock’s cynicism is charming. In fact, his deep distrust might not serve him.
Image: Reuters/Stefan Wermuth
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In the fourth century BC, cynics wanted to live like dogs. The Cynics were Greek philosophers who rejected conventional ideas about money, power, and shelter. Instead, they advocated living simply, aligned with nature. The founder of this school of thought, Antisthenes, purportedly lived on the streets of Athens, ate raw meat, and preached a life of poverty (though sometimes he just barked at people from a platform). The word cynic even stems from the Greek word for dog—”kynos.”

Today, cynicism has come to mean something very different than it did to the ancient Greeks. Self-identified cynics pride themselves on skepticism and their ability to be wary of other people’s motives as a sign of discerning intelligence. Our fictions bolster this myth by favoring world-weary protagonists like detective Sherlock Holmes, who sniff out truths that elude the rest of us because he sees the worst in people.

Yet a new study of cynicism argues that the cynical genius is a myth. In a comprehensive cross-cultural analysis published in the Personal and Social Psychology Bulletin on July 11, social psychologist Olga Stavrova of Tilburg University in the Netherlands and evolutionary psychologist Daniel Ehlebracht from the University of Cologne in Germany conclude that the most competent people aren’t so cynical after all.

Trust no one, get ahead

The study’s authors point out that there’s a reason people think it’s smart to be cynical. The notion that we’re driven entirely by self-interest is promoted in evolutionary biology and economic theory. We are often taught that “survival of the fittest” requires people to look out for their individual interests. Therefore it’s only logical to believe that we’re protecting ourselves by assuming the worst about humanity, the authors suggest. If we’re wrong, well, better safe than sorry.

But the authors argue that cynicism isn’t so useful if it’s our default position, noting that a slew of studies on the relationship between trust and health and finances find that thinking the worst tends to lead to worse results in terms of earnings and well-being.

“Cross-cultural analyses showed that competent individuals held contingent attitudes and endorsed cynicism only if it was warranted in a given sociocultural environment,” the researchers write. “Less competent individuals embraced cynicism unconditionally, suggesting that—at low levels of competence—holding a cynical worldview might represent an adaptive default strategy to avoid the potential costs of falling prey to others’ cunning.”

In other words, the studies showed that the people who performed well on the researchers’ linguistic, numerical, and intellectual tests weren’t especially distrustful of others. They were only cynical when cynicism seemed warranted, depending on their cultural context and the extent to which distrust was reasonable, based on the amount of corruption or lack of law in their countries.

The crooked timber of humanity

The researchers conducted multiple experiments to assess people’s beliefs about the relationship between cynicism and competence, as well as whether cynicism was actually beneficial.

In two of these tests, each conducted on about 200 individuals, the subjects read vignettes about two different people—one a cynic, the other non-cynical. The participants then answered questions about the characters’ cognitive abilities, and took a cynicism test themselves. For example, they rated statements like, “I believe most people would lie to get ahead” on a scale of one to five, ranging from “strongly agree” to “strongly disagree.”

Subjects in the second study also judged the social skills of people in the vignettes in addition to cognitive ability. The researchers found that in both tests, subjects tended to connect cynicism with cognitive skill. But when social skills were added to the mix, non-cynics were judged more capable. The first study was conducted online with participants from Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, an online work marketplace, while the second was conducted on paper with students at a German university. Still, the results were consistent—cynicism was equated with ability in both studies.

A third study, with British subjects, allowed for more nuance in responses. This time, participants assessed cynics and non-cynics in the vignettes along a continuous scale, ascribing an amount of trust or disbelief that would be optimal for a given cognitive or social task. The results here were more nuanced, too. On average, people believed that a mix of 56% cynicism and 44% non-cynicism was optimal for performance on cognitive tasks. When it came to social performance, however, they thought someone 78% non-cynical and only 22% distrusting was optimal.

Based on these studies, the researchers conclude that our tendency to believe in the idea of the “cynical genius” is strong—but mitigated depending on what task a person is performing. They explain:

Overall, a clear majority of our participants expected cynical individuals to perform better on a range of cognitive tasks and cognitive ability tests than noncynical individuals … At the same time, individuals clearly differentiated between cognitive and social competences and rated cynics favorably with respect to the former but not the latter. Importantly, allowing our participants to set an optimum level of cynicism needed for cognitive tasks showed that they generally preferred an elevated (although not very high) level of cynicism to a moderate one.

Skills tests

Three more tests sought to determine whether distrust in humanity actually correlates with competence and intelligence in different age groups and cultures. Two studies looked at cynicism in Germans—adults, then youth—and the third examined data from around the world.

First, the researchers used a large-scale nationally representative sample of German adults, and assessed subjects’ level of cynicism, using responses to an established psychological test which measures faith in people with questions like, “Do you think that most people would try to take advantage of you if they got the chance, or would they try to be fair?” Then they explored associations between cynicism and different measures of competence, including education, general cognitive ability, and academic competencies

The results showed that people who scored higher on the competency tests also tended to be less cynical. They had faith in people, and yet they performed well.

Et tu, youth?

The fifth test sought to find out whether people who were more cynical as teenagers were also more successful as young adults. They used data from the German Socio-Economic Panel, a longitudinal household study of the German population, conducted annually since 1984, which includes a component aimed at 16- to 18-year olds. They compared results from nearly 900 teens who responded to the study in 2006, and again as young adults in 2013. The results? Cognitive ability in the teens was negatively associated with cynicism in young adults. In other words, the more trusting kids also turned out to be more capable than those who had no faith in humanity in their youth.

Around the world

The final, most ambitious aspect of the study examined cynicism and competence across 30 countries and 200,000 people, using data from the Survey of Adult Skills, which is part of the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies put together by the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) in 2017. Competence was determined by subjects’ education, literacy, numeracy, and computer literacy. But the test also accounted for the fact that context influences the extent to which distrust of others may be warranted. Where corruption is common and rule of law is spotty, it may indeed be very smart to be wary of humanity.

The researchers expected that highly competent individuals would endorse cynicism more if they live in a corrupt sociocultural climate, while less competent people be indiscriminately cynical, whether or not a lack of faith is warranted.

To measure cynicism, the researchers used two statements included in the OECD survey. Subjects rated the following statements on a 5-point scale, from strongly agree to strongly disagree: “There are only a few people you can trust completely” and “If you are not careful, other people will take advantage of you.”

Their results revealed that, as expected, cynicism and competence aren’t positively linked. In almost each of 30 countries examined, cynics who were uniformly distrustful tended to be less competent. But globally, high-competence individuals adjusted their level of cynicism depending on their sociocultural environment.

Why we wrongly believe in disbelief

If cynicism isn’t necessarily a sign of competence, why does the myth of the cynical genius endure? Part of the issue is that we don’t necessarily pay attention to the ways things work out, the researchers suggest. A “win” for faith in humanity—say, a stranger who stops to give us good directions—goes unremarked. Meanwhile,  the memory of a betrayal, like a refusal to help or deliberate misdirections, sticks with us and continues to sting.

In addition, cynics may create self-fulfilling prophecies. They trust no one, so they miss out on more opportunities, which only goes to confirm their worldview. Distrust forecloses positive outcomes from the start and reinforces negative beliefs, while trust—a potential risk—also allows more happy outcomes to occur, according to the study.

It’s notable too that there’s a link between cynicism and education. Perhaps, the social psychologists suggest, people who enjoy the privileges and benefits of education also live and work in kinder environments, where they have less reason to distrust others than someone struggling in a rough crime-ridden neighborhood. There are places where it makes sense to be wary of others, the researchers readily admit.

The psychologists conclude by citing Stephen Colbert, a comedic genius and true wit who’s no cynic. He’s taken the improvisational comedy rule that demands players say, “yes, and” to everything and turned it into a life philosophy. “Cynicism masquerades as wisdom but it is the furthest thing from it,” Colbert explains. “Because cynics don’t learn anything. Because cynicism is a self-imposed blindness; a rejection of the world because we are afraid it will hurt us or disappoint us. Cynics always say ‘no.’ But saying ‘yes’ begins things. Saying ‘yes’ is how we grow.”