Cynicism refers to an attitude or mindset characterized by distrust or doubt about the apparent motives of others. It also refers to an ancient Greek school of thought practiced by philosophers known as the Cynics.
Cynicism In Psychology
Cynicism is a tendency to disbelieve others’ righteousness, morality, sincerity, honesty and ethical values. This mentality is typically marked by scepticism, doubt, pessimism, bitterness, sarcasm and apprehension of people in general. “Cynicism refers to a negative appraisal of human nature – a belief that self-interest is the ultimate motive guiding human behavior,” explains a 2018 study 1 . People with such attitudes believe that everyone is solely driven by their own self-interest and need for personal gain. Research 2 has found that this attitude is primarily “composed of Pessimism and Dispositional attribution.” Pessimism refers to one’s inclination to only consider the worst aspect of a situation, person or thing or expecting the worst outcomes at all times. While, dispositional attribution refers to a person’s tendency to ascribe someone’s behavior or actions to inherent or internal traits and psychological factors, like mindset, personality, moods, abilities or judgments, instead of external influences. According to another study 3 , “cynicism is a component of perversion.”
A cynical person has difficulty trusting others as they believe human beings are mainly motivated by their own beliefs, gratification, needs, greed, materialism, goals, ambitions and selfishness. A person with this form of negative mindset considers such motivations as meaningless or vain. Hence, they tend to be sarcastic or mock and ridicule others.
Cynicism In Philosophy
The term originates from the Latin word ‘Cynici’ referring to the Cynics, an ancient Greek philosophical sect. A 2017 study 4 explains classical cynicism as “a particularly rich and valuable school in this respect, offering a philosophy that is before anything else a way of life, combining philosophical reflection, a value system, and a practice of living.” The Cynics supported an unorthodox lifestyle and culture that involved the rejection of traditional beliefs like the pursuit of wealth, having honor, striving to be powerful and various other established political and social beliefs. These philosophers instead practiced bohemianism, recusancy and disobedience of social standards related to decency, behavior, accommodation, religion etc.
Moreover, they vowed and professed communal anarchism and universal utopia. These cynics promoted the pursuit of virtue as life’s purpose which can enable one to live a more painless and simpler life that is in accordance with nature. They believed that we should live our lives in a way that feels natural for us as individuals and experience joy through careful and meticulous training. As we have the ability to reason, we must reject traditional goals associated with money, fame and power and instead free ourselves from materialistic possessions and opt for a simpler life instead.
Origin Of Cynicism
Cynicism, as a school of thought, prospered during the 4th century BCE. It is believed that Greek philosopher Antisthenes, a pupil of Socrates, was the original founder of these beliefs and the philosophical sect. However, Greek philosopher Diogenes of Sinope took this school of thought to a whole new level and became a manifestation of the atypical cynic. In fact, he was popularly known as Diogenes the Cynic. He advocated living a natural life by admonishing social conventions and promoted outspokenness, rigorous training and shamelessness in activities that were not harmful for others but challenged social norms. In fact, some experts claim that Diogenes believed that being a genuine and authentic human being meant we live like “dogs.” A 2013 study 5 explains that Diogenes of Sinope taught cynicism philosophy and “kept his need for clothing and food to a minimum by begging. He used to follow some ideas like life according to nature, self-sufficiency, freedom from emotion, lack of shame, outspokenness, and contempt for social organization.” Diogenes was followed by his pupil Crates of Thebes who forsook his fortune to become a cynic philosopher.
According to a 2019 study 6 , “A group of philosophers who called themselves as followers of Antisthenes very openly questioned the existence of government and religious institutions.” By the third century, “Cynicism was revived as a school of thought and propagated the idea of mockery of convention and tradition and prevailing beliefs and modes of behavior,” adds the study. The popularity of cynicism started to fall by the 3rd century BC, however, during the reign of the Roman Empire, it saw a revival. Eventually, in the 19th century, the rejection of social norms, the ascetic beliefs and the negative elements of this school of thought transformed into the current and contemporary understanding of modern cynicism. Today, it has turned into a negative attitude that distrusts human sincerity and motives and disbelieves ethical values. However, nowadays, some people can develop this mindset due to disillusionment, disappointment, bitterness or frustration with various social aspects.
This mental attitude often serves as a defensive tool that some individuals use to protect their thoughts and emotions from expectations, disappointments and emotional pain. They may have had unrealistic expectations and unreasonable high standards in life which eventually led to severe disappointments. Moreover, they also tend to be idealists who withdraw from society instead of accepting change or adjusting their mentality. Most people tend to become cynics due to some negative life experiences, having felt emotionally hurt or being hostile & angry with certain social or political aspects. However, instead of acknowledging and coping with their own thoughts and emotions, they distort their perceptions and views of other people and the world in general. Hence, it is likely that beyond their veil of cynicism, they may simply be individuals who are hurt, highly sensitive, emotional and disappointed. Although a person may become cynical and pessimistic about certain aspects of life, this negative mindset can eventually spread to other aspects and completely skew their perceptions.
However, it should be noted that cynicism is often based on observation and can be accurate at times. Moreover, as this attitude lies on a spectrum, some people tend to be more cynical than others. In fact, some individuals can be extremely cynical leading to narcissistic traits 7 while some others can be highly naive and optimistic. Regardless, cynics tend to have strong beliefs and are often proud of their negative attitude. They may even enjoy making sarcastic or satirical remarks and criticizing others which enables them to see themselves as superior to more naive individuals. However, by asking the right questions, a cynical person can often encourage others to question their own thoughts, ideals, priorities and values to live a more meaningful, genuine and satisfying life. It should be understood that there are some positive aspects to this attitude that involves some degree of pragmatism. Cynics often consider all possible aspects of a situation, especially worst case scenarios and, hence, may be better prepared to cope with life’s challenges and protect their egos.
How Cynicism Develops
It is believed that this attitude or reflex tends to typically develop during childhood due to negative early life events. Studies 8 have found that adverse childhood experiences can influence adulthood personalities and influence one’s personality traits, like openness to experience that can lead to “being cynical and tough-minded.” When a child experiences emotional suffering from caregivers, parents, family members and peers, they may develop a negative mindset in order to protect their self-esteem and feelings.
Moreover, certain experts also claim that cynical individuals may be strongly influenced by their reptilian brains 9 , which is the oldest, evolutionary 10 part of our brain. Hence, they are primarily driven by their need for survival. As a result, they often prefer to stay in their comfort zone, avoid socializing, reject new approaches, focus on ego protection and desperately try to control their environment. It is mainly a defensive mechanism which acts as a shield to protect the individual from disappointments and making mistakes. However, some people, such as narcissists or sociopaths, may have an inherent negative personality that turns them into cynics.
How Cynicism Affects Us
At present, cynicism is an embodiment of distrust and doubt of the goodness of others and their motives. Modern cynics tend to be seen as pessimistic, negative, annoying, discouraging and contemptuous. However, their cynicism seems to affect their lives adversely first. Their beliefs hold them back from building meaningful connections, friendships and intimate relationships. Not only can it affect their social life, but it can also impact their career and financial status. As a result, most cynics today tend to live in isolation and may experience poverty or economic struggles. Coupled with their pessimistic views, they are more prone to experiencing stress, anxiety, depression 11 and burnout 12 . Research 13 has also observed that cynics are more likely to have suicidal ideation and commit sucide as well. “Suicidal ideation is associated with cynicism but is unrelated to measures of hostility, anger, or aggression or to the severity of depression,” add the researchers. In some way, by being pessimistic and expecting the worst from others, they tend to exhibit their own worst traits and may even inspire negativity in others as well.
A 2009 study observed that women with a cynical and pessimistic attitude have a higher risk of experiencing coronary heart disease, cancer, morbidity and mortality. On the other hand, optimistic women tend to have lower risks for such health conditions. The study adds “Optimism was associated with a favorable profile and cynical hostility with an unfavorable profile of baseline risk factors for CHD (coronary heart disease) and mortality, including measures of socioeconomic status, health conditions, personal habits, and physical and laboratory measurements.” One 2014 study found that cynicism may adversely affect our brain health. The study found that cynical distrust is associated with incident dementia. Dementia 14 is marked by decline in cognition, memory and other cognitive skills like executive functioning, abstract thinking, attention, language etc. Another 2021 study 15 confirmed this claim by observing that cynical hostility is related to changes in white matter in the brain and increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease. These life-threatening effects of having a cynical attitude makes a strong case for avoiding such a negative and hostile mindset.
Read More About Dementia Here
Ways To Overcome Cynicism
If you wish to evade the negative effects of cynicism, stop being a cynical person and develop a more positive mindset and outlook, then here are a few steps to help you get started:
1. Acknowledge your cynical mindset
The first step to overcome this reflex is to accept and admit that you have a problem with your attitude. Most of us tend to be cynical at times due to our life experiences. However, when we start thinking in extremes and observe life in black & white, it can get seriously problematic. Not only can it limit your social circle but also lead to isolation which limits your chances of social & professional success. However, when you can identify your negative mindset and how it affects you, you can find the encouragement to start changing your perception and attitude. By acknowledging your problem, you can observe your negative attitude, you can better control your thoughts and let go of your pessimistic beliefs. This initial step is of utmost importance.
2. Identify your negative thoughts
Learning to recognize your cynical thoughts and views when they occur can help you stop your cynicism in the tracks. This can be done by practicing mindfulness meditation for at least 10 minutes daily. It can empower you to observe your own thoughts and emotions and gain awareness about yourself and your cynical thoughts.
3. Choose to be positive
Be deliberate and intentional about being positive in life. Being optimistic and positive is a choice that you need to make every day. Trying to have a positive attitude 16 will help to control your inner cynic and develop a more optimistic approach towards life. Tell yourself that life is not bad and evil, but there is good in others and in yourself. Accept the fact that life has its own challenges and rewards causing both suffering and happiness. You should also try to be more open towards others’ opinions and suggestions as it can help you learn or realize something new or gain a different perspective. Studies 17 have found that positive thinking helps to reduce pathological worry and anxiety.
4. Use rationalization
Cynicism often develops due to adverse childhood experiences or personality issues that skew our thought process. This is why using logical reasoning to counter unreasonable attitudes or behaviors can help you overcome damaging emotions. It can allow you to create a solid debate based on logical facts and information to counter your negative thoughts and gain a clearer vision about yourself and your life.
5. Observe the good in others
Choose to see the positive qualities in people instead of seeking out their negative traits. Most people are not purely good or evil. We all possess certain good and bad qualities that make us human and help us grow by making mistakes and learning from them. Instead of judging someone based on your cynicism, intentionally look for their positive qualities. Although this may take some time and practice, you will eventually learn to develop a mental habit of identifying the good in people. It is also important that you start to trust others, especially your family and friends. However, it is crucial that you start associating with people who are more positive and less cynical.
6. Gain knowledge and learn new skills
Learning a new skill or increasing your knowledge by pursuing higher education can also help you to overcome your cynical attitude and behavior. According to a 2018 study 18 , education can act as “an antidote to cynicism” and help to cope with negative views of others, intolerance, distrust and close-mindedness. Education is associated with higher levels of openness to experience, tolerance, open-mindedness and support of minorities’ rights. Moreover, highly educated individuals tend to be less prejudiced and have a better sense of personal control. “Higher education is associated with a reduced perception of constraints, which is in turn related to less endorsement of cynical beliefs,” adds the study.
Apart from these, here are some other helpful ways to overcome cynicism –
- Try to be less judgmental towards life and others
- Be kinder and more forgiving to others and yourself
- Socialize more often and avoid isolating yourself
- Practice positive affirmations in the morning
- Write down 3 things you are grateful for every day to reduce stress & negativity
- Spend more time in nature to boost your mood
- Practice mindfulness to become aware of your negative thought patterns
- Engage in some physical activity and exercise regularly
- Practice relaxation techniques, like deep breathing or yoga to calm your mind
- Do things that help others, like volunteering, to shift your perspective away from cynicism
- Restrict your exposure to social media and news
- Talk to a therapist to cope with past trauma, stress, anxiety, negativity and other mental health issues
Cynicism can often affect you more than it affects others. Most cynics tend to be dissatisfied with life and are bitter towards others and themselves. It can lead to unhappiness and even depression in the long run. However, most of us tend to be a little cynical as it helps us to protect our ego and emotions. Regardless, if you feel that being cynical is negatively affecting your career, relationships and life, it is time you take steps to overcome this attitude. Changing your mindset and consulting a therapist can greatly help you build a more positive and happier life.
Cynicism At A Glance
- In psychology, cynicism is a mentality or attitude marked by doubt, pessimism and distrust of professed motives of other people in general.
- In philosophy, cynicism refers to an ancient Greek philosophical sect that supported an unorthodox lifestyle involving the rejection of traditional political and social beliefs.
- Cynicism, as a school of thought, was founded by Greek philosopher Antisthenes during the 4th century BCE and was later promoted by Greek philosopher Diogenes of Sinope.
- Cynicism may serve as a defensive tool which can help people to safeguard their thoughts, feelings and self-esteem from disappointments and emotional suffering.
- This attitude can develop due to adverse childhood experiences or due to innate negative personality traits.
- One can learn to overcome cynicism by being aware of their negative mindset and by intentionally developing a positive attitude.
- Stavrova, O., & Ehlebracht, D. (2019). The Cynical Genius Illusion: Exploring and Debunking Lay Beliefs About Cynicism and Competence. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 45(2), 254–269. https://doi.org/10.1177/0146167218783195
- Wanous, J. P., Reichers, A. E., & Austin, J. T. (2004). Cynicism about organizational change: an attribution process perspective. Psychological reports, 94(3 Pt 2), 1421–1434. https://doi.org/10.2466/pr0.94.3c.1421-1434
- Eiguer A. (1999). Cynicism: its function in the perversions. The International journal of psycho-analysis, 80 ( Pt 4), 671–684. https://doi.org/10.1516/0020757991598981
- Schutijser, D. (2017). Cynicism as a way of life: From the classical cynic to a new cynicism. Akropolis: Journal of Hellenic Studies, 1, 33-54. https://doi.org/10.35296/jhs.v1i0.2
- Biswas, P., Ganguly, A., Bala, S., Nag, F., Choudhary, N., & Sen, S. (2013). Diogenes syndrome: a case report. Case reports in dermatological medicine, 2013, 595192. https://doi.org/10.1155/2013/595192
- Durrah, O., Chaudhary, M., & Gharib, M. (2019). Organizational Cynicism and Its Impact on Organizational Pride in Industrial Organizations. International journal of environmental research and public health, 16(7), 1203. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph16071203
- Bell, J. B. (2016). EWU Digital Commons | Eastern Washington University Research. https://dc.ewu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?referer=&httpsredir=1&article=1346&context=theses
- Fletcher, J. M., & Schurer, S. (2017). Origins of adulthood personality: The role of adverse childhood experiences. The B.E. journal of economic analysis & policy, 17(2), 10.1515/bejeap-2015-0212. https://doi.org/10.1515/bejeap-2015-0212
- Naumann, R. K., Ondracek, J. M., Reiter, S., Shein-Idelson, M., Tosches, M. A., Yamawaki, T. M., & Laurent, G. (2015). The reptilian brain. Current biology : CB, 25(8), R317–R321. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2015.02.049
- Aboitiz F. (1995). Evolutionary origins of the reptilian brain: the question of putative homologues of dorsal ventricular ridge. An overview and proposal. Biological research, 28(3), 187–196.
- Haukkala, A., & Uutela, A. (2000). Cynical hostility, depression, and obesity: the moderating role of education and gender. The International journal of eating disorders, 27(1), 106–109. https://doi.org/10.1002/(sici)1098-108x(200001)27:1<106::aid-eat13>3.0.co;2-5
- Maslach, C., & Leiter, M. P. (2016). Understanding the burnout experience: recent research and its implications for psychiatry. World psychiatry : official journal of the World Psychiatric Association (WPA), 15(2), 103–111. https://doi.org/10.1002/wps.20311
- Nierenberg, A. A., Ghaemi, S. N., Clancy-Colecchi, K., Rosenbaum, J. F., & Fava, M. (1996). Cynicism, hostility, and suicidal ideation in depressed outpatients. The Journal of nervous and mental disease, 184(10), 607–610. https://doi.org/10.1097/00005053-199610000-00004
- Emmady PD, Tadi P. Dementia. [Updated 2021 Jul 6]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2021 Jan-. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK557444/
- Cyprien, F., Berr, C., Maller, J. J., Meslin, C., Gentreau, M., Mura, T., Gabelle, A., Courtet, P., Ritchie, K., Ancelin, M. L., & Artero, S. (2021). Late-life cynical hostility is associated with white matter alterations and the risk of Alzheimer’s disease. Psychological medicine, 1–10. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0033291721000416
- Ainslie G. (2017). Positivity versus negativity is a matter of timing. The Behavioral and brain sciences, 40, e348. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0140525X17001571
- Eagleson, C., Hayes, S., Mathews, A., Perman, G., & Hirsch, C. R. (2016). The power of positive thinking: Pathological worry is reduced by thought replacement in Generalized Anxiety Disorder. Behaviour research and therapy, 78, 13–18. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.brat.2015.12.017
- Stavrova, O., & Ehlebracht, D. (2018). Education as an Antidote to Cynicism: A Longitudinal Investigation. Social psychological and personality science, 9(1), 59–69. https://doi.org/10.1177/1948550617699255