Cynicism In Psychology

Verified by World Mental Healthcare Association

Cynicism, a perspective rooted in skepticism and distrust of others, can significantly influence mental health and emotional well-being. Its impact extends beyond mere philosophical attitudes, affecting individuals’ outlook on life, relationships, and overall emotional wellness.

What Is Cynicism?

Cynicism is a philosophical and psychological attitude characterized by skepticism and a general distrust of the motives and sincerity of others. Cynics tend to view human behavior as selfish and driven by self-interest, often dismissing conventional social norms and values as hypocritical or insincere.

This worldview is rooted in the belief that people act primarily to fulfill their own desires, without genuine concern for others or higher principles. Cynics may adopt a critical and sarcastic demeanor 1 as a defense mechanism against perceived deception and disingenuousness in the world.

Read More About Defense Mechanism Here

In daily life, cynicism can have both positive and negative impacts 2 on well-being and mental health. On the positive side, it can protect individuals from naivety and prevent them from being easily deceived or manipulated. However, excessive cynicism can also lead to feelings of alienation, isolation, and negativity, affecting one’s overall mental well-being.

Characteristics Of Cynicism

The common characteristics 3 of cynicism include:

  1. Skepticism and distrust of others’ motives
  2. Belief in selfish human behavior
  3. Dismissal of conventional social norms as hypocritical
  4. Critical and sarcastic demeanor
  5. Emphasis on individual independence and self-sufficiency
  6. Rejection of material possessions and social status
  7. Focus on inner virtue and simplicity of life
  8. Challenging societal conventions and authority
  9. Value placed on honesty and authenticity

What Causes Cynicism?

Experts 4 researching into what causes cynicism point to the following developmental factors:

  1. Negative past experiences or betrayals
  2. Observing dishonesty or hypocrisy in others
  3. Feeling disconnected or disillusioned with society
  4. Perceiving pervasive corruption or unethical behavior
  5. Exposure to cynicism from influential figures or media
  6. Psychological defense mechanism against vulnerability
  7. Lack of trust-building experiences or positive relationships
  8. Personal feelings of powerlessness or lack of control
  9. Cultivation of critical thinking without balance in perspective

How Cynicism Affects Mental Health

Cynicism and mental health are inversely related 5 , impacting both emotional well-being and interpersonal relationships. Excessive cynicism can lead to feelings of chronic pessimism, hopelessness, and disillusionment.

Individuals who harbor deep mistrust and skepticism towards others may struggle to find joy or meaning in life, leading to an increased risk of developing mood disorders like depression and anxiety. Moreover, cynics may isolate themselves from social interactions, perpetuating a sense of alienation and loneliness, which can further exacerbate mental health issues.

Read More About Anxiety Here

Furthermore, cynicism can strain interpersonal relationships as the constant suspicion and criticism can create barriers to trust and genuine connection. It may lead to conflicts and misunderstandings, isolating the cynic from potential sources of support and understanding.

Additionally, the negative attitude of a cynic can influence the emotional atmosphere in their social circles, leading to increased stress and tension for themselves and others.

Mental Illness Associated With Cynicism

Common mental health conditions 3 triggered by cynicism include:

  • Major depressive disorder (MDD)
  • Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD)
  • Paranoid personality disorder
  • Avoidant personality disorder
  • Antisocial personality disorder (in extreme cases)
  • Substance use disorders (self-medication)
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) (if cynicism stems from trauma)
  • Social anxiety disorder (SAD) (related to interpersonal difficulties)
  • Borderline personality disorder (BPD) (interpersonal struggles and emotional instability)

Read More About Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) Here

Cynicism In The Workplace

Cynicism in the workplace can create a toxic and disengaging atmosphere. When employees adopt a cynical outlook, they may become distrustful of their colleagues, management, and the organization as a whole 6 .

This can lead to decreased teamwork, collaboration, and communication, as well as a lack of enthusiasm for work-related tasks. Organizational 7 cynicism can also erode employee morale, potentially resulting in:  

  • Higher turnover rates
  • Increased risks of burnout
  • Reduced productivity
  • Reduced job satisfaction
  • Reduced work motivation

How To Overcome Cynicism

Consider the following measures 8 on how to overcome cynicism:

  • Practice self-awareness and recognize cynical thoughts and attitudes.
  • Challenge negative assumptions and beliefs about others’ motives.
  • Seek support from friends, family, or a therapist to discuss and process emotions.
  • Engage in activities that foster positive emotions and a sense of well-being.
  • Cultivate empathy and understanding by considering others’ perspectives.
  • Focus on building positive and genuine relationships with trustworthy individuals.
  • Limit exposure to excessively negative media or influences.
  • Practice gratitude and focus on the positive aspects of life.
  • Adopt a more balanced and realistic perspective on human behavior.
  • Set realistic expectations for others while acknowledging imperfections.

Read More About Empathy Here


Cynicism can serve as a protective shield against naivety, but excessive cynicism can lead to detrimental effects on mental health. Understanding the causes and characteristics of cynicism can help individuals recognize its impact on their well-being.

By practicing strategies associated with self-awareness and empathy, cynical individuals can work towards overcoming cynicism and promoting a healthier outlook on life and relationships.

At A Glance

  1. Cynicism is a philosophical and psychological attitude characterized by skepticism and distrust of others’ motives.
  2. Common characteristics of cynicism include skepticism, distrust, and a critical demeanor.
  3. It can have both positive and negative impacts on well-being and mental health.
  4. Excessive cynicism can lead to mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, and strained relationships.
  5. Measures on how to overcome cynicism often include self-strategies associated with self-awareness, empathy, and gratitude.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

1. What are some examples of cynicism?

Examples of cynicism include believing that everyone is motivated by self-interest, dismissing acts of kindness as insincere, and assuming that people will always let you down.

2. Who is a cynical person?

A cynical person is someone who consistently views the world and others with skepticism, distrust, and negativity.

3. Can cynicism be positive?

Yes, cynicism can be positive as it can protect individuals from being easily deceived or manipulated and promote critical thinking and discernment.

4. Can cynicism be toxic?

Yes, cynicism can be toxic as it can lead to a pessimistic outlook, strained relationships, and hinder personal growth and well-being.

👇 References:
  1.  Neumann, E., & Zaki, J. (2023). Toward a social psychology of cynicism. Trends in cognitive sciences27(1), 1–3. []
  2.  Stavrova, O., & Ehlebracht, D. (2019). The Cynical Genius Illusion: Exploring and Debunking Lay Beliefs About Cynicism and Competence. Personality & social psychology bulletin45(2), 254–269. []
  3.  Hershey, M. S., & Stoddard, H. A. (2021). A Scoping Review of Research into the Origins of Cynicism Among Medical Trainees. Medical science educator31(4), 1511–1517. [][]
  4.  Mills, C. M., & Keil, F. C. (2005). The development of cynicism. Psychological science16(5), 385–390. []
  5.  Qin, Z., Liu, C., Guo, X., Meng, C., Gao, J., Lv, J., Hu, Y., Yuan, T., Liang, L., Li, C., Fei, J., Zou, L., Zhang, H., & Mei, S. (2023). The influence of subjective well-being on mental health in nursing students: the role of student cynicism. Psychology, health & medicine28(5), 1358–1367. []
  6.  Volpe, R. L., Mohammed, S., Hopkins, M., Shapiro, D., & Dellasega, C. (2014). The negative impact of organizational cynicism on physicians and nurses. The health care manager33(4), 276–288. []
  7.  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 health16(7), 1203. []
  8.  Stavrova, O., & Ehlebracht, D. (2018). Education as an Antidote to Cynicism: A Longitudinal Investigation. Social psychological and personality science9(1), 59–69. []