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Sunday, November 27, 2022

Towards a Social Psychology of Cynicism

Neumann, E., & Zaki, j. (2022, September 13).


Cynicism is the attitude that people are primarily motivated by self-interest. It tracks numerous negative outcomes, and yet many people are cynical. To understand this “cynicism paradox,” we review and call for more social psychological work on how cynicism spreads, with implications for how we might slow it down.

The Cynicism Paradox

Out of almost 8,000 respondents from 41 countries, many agree that “powerful people tend to exploit others” or that “kind-hearted people usually suffer losses”. This indicates widespread cynicism, the attitude that people are primarily motivated by self-interest, often accompanied by emotions such as contempt, anger, and distress, and antagonistic interactions with others. What explains such cynicism? Perhaps it reflects a realistic perception of the suffering caused by human self-interest. But workin social psychology regularly demonstrates that attitudes are not always perfect  mirrors of reality.  We will argue  that  people  often  overestimate self-interest,  create  it through their expectations, or overstate their own to not appear na├»ve. Cynicism rises when people witness self-interest, but social psychology –so far relatively quiet on the topic –can explain why they get trapped in this worldview even when it stops tracking reality.

Cynicism is related, but not reducible to, a lack of trust. Trust is often defined as accepting vulnerability based on positive expectations of others. Generalized trust implies a general tendency to  have  positive  expectations  of  others,  and  shares  with  cynicism  the  tendency  to  judge  the character of a whole group of people. But cynicism is more than reduced positive expectations.It entails a strongly negative view of human nature. The intensity of cynicism’s hostility further differentiates it from mere generalized distrust. Finally, while people can trust and distrust others’ competence,  integrity,  and  predictability,  cynicism  usually  focuses  on  judgments  of  moral character.  This  differentiates  cynicism  from  mere  pessimism,  which  encompasses  any  negative beliefs about the future, moral or non-moral alike. 

Direct applications to psychotherapy.