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Friday, August 19, 2022

Too cynical to reconnect: Cynicism moderates the effect of social exclusion on prosociality through empathy

B. K. C. Choy, K. Eom, & N. P. Li
Personality and Individual Differences
Volume 178, August 2021, 110871


Extant findings are mixed on whether social exclusion impacts prosociality. We propose one factor that may underlie the mixed results: Cynicism. Specifically, cynicism may moderate the exclusion-prosociality link by influencing interpersonal empathy. Compared to less cynical individuals, we expected highly cynical individuals who were excluded to experience less empathy and, consequently, less prosocial behavior. Using an online ball-tossing game, participants were randomly assigned to an exclusion or inclusion condition. Consistent with our predictions, the effect of social exclusion on prosociality through empathy was contingent on cynicism, such that only less-cynical individuals responded to exclusion with greater empathy, which, in turn, was associated with higher levels of prosocial behavior. We further showed this effect to hold for cynicism, but not other similar traits typically characterized by high disagreeableness. Findings contribute to the social exclusion literature by suggesting a key variable that may moderate social exclusion's impact on resultant empathy and prosocial behavior and are consistent with the perspective that people who are excluded try to not only become included again but to establish alliances characterized by reciprocity.

From the Discussion

While others have proposed that empathy may be reflexively inhibited upon exclusion (DeWall & Baumeister, 2006; Twenge et al., 2007), our findings indicate that this process of inhibition—at least for empathy—may be more flexible than previously thought. If reflexive, individuals would have shown a similar level of empathy regardless of cynicism. That highly- and less-cynical individuals displayed different levels of empathy indicates that some other processes are in play. Our interpretation is that the process through which empathy is exhibited or inhibited may depend on one’s appraisals of the physical and social situation. 

Importantly, unlike cynicism, other similarly disagreeable dispositional traits such as Machiavellianism, psychopathy, and SDO (Social Dominance Orientation) did not modulate the empathy-mediated link between social exclusion and prosociality. This suggests that cynicism is conceptually different from other traits of a seemingly negative nature. Indeed, whereas cynics may hold a negative view of the intentions of others around them, Machiavellians are characterized by a negative view of others’ competence and a pragmatic and strategic approach to social interactions (Jones, 2016). Similarly, whereas cynics view others’ emotions as ingenuine, psychopathic individuals are further distinguished by their high levels of callousness and impulsivity (Paulhus, 2014). Likewise, whereas cynics may view the world as inherently competitive, they may not display the same preference for hierarchy that high-SDO individuals do (Ho et al., 21015). Thus, despite the similarities between these traits, our findings affirm their substantive differences from cynicism.