The Cynical Genius Illusion: Exploring and Debunking Lay Beliefs About Cynicism and Competence

From this 2019 paper:

* Cross-cultural analyses showed that competent individuals held contingent attitudes and endorsed cynicism only if it was warranted in a given sociocultural environment. 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.

* Cynicism reflects a negative appraisal of human nature, a belief that self-interest is the ultimate motive behind all human actions, even the seemingly good ones, and that people will go to any lengths to satisfy it…

* Holding a cynical view of human nature has been associated with bad health outcomes and increased mortality risks, lower psychological well-being, diminished self-esteem, and reduced economic well-being…

* Even though social observers might think that being too cynical is wiser than being not cynical enough, this belief might not mirror the real associations of cynicism and competence. Indeed, studies using the trust game showed that people typically earned more if they were willing to trust strangers rather than not.

Longitudinal studies corroborated this idea, suggesting that cynical individuals earn lower incomes due to their ineptitude for cooperation, and cynicism might therefore be not that smart in terms of financial success (Stavrova & Ehlebracht, 2016).

Further studies demonstrated that cynicism is more likely to be a worldview endorsed by individuals with lower rather than higher levels of education (Haukkala, 2002; Stavrova & Ehlebracht, 2018) and intelligent individuals’ behavior was shown to be more likely to depart from the norms of selfinterest (Solon, 2014). Higher levels of education and competence in a broader sense might help individuals detect and avoid potential deceit in the first place, thus reducing the probability of negative social experiences, which might in turn contribute to a more positive view of human nature (Yamagishi, Kikuchi, & Kosugi, 1999). Indeed a number of studies showed general cognitive ability to be negatively related to cynical hostility (Barnes et al., 2009; Mortensen, Barefoot, & Avlund, 2012) and positively related to trust..

* Cynical individuals are likely to do worse (rather than better) on cognitive tasks, cognitive abilities, and competencies tests, and tend to be less educated than less cynical individuals.

* when people endorse a cynical stance concerning others and consequently forgo trust, they usually do not even get a chance to learn whether their untrustworthiness assumption was correct and being cynical thus spared them a “loss”—or whether it was incorrect and therefore denied them a “win.” In other words, cynicism often precludes the possibility of experiencing negative outcomes. As a result, it might be perceived as a smarter, more successful strategy and cynical individuals might be attributed higher levels of competence than their less cynical counterparts. After all, they are highly unlikely to be betrayed, deceived, and exploited, whereas it usually remains unknown whether their cynicism resulted in missed opportunities.

Finally, the abundance of smart and witty cynics in fiction might fuel the “cynical genius illusion” as well. As the primary goal of fiction is entertainment, fictional worlds are typically more dangerous, their villains are meaner, and the costs of mistakes are higher than in reality—or, as Barack Obama (2014) put it referring to the House of Cards series: “Life in Washington is a little more boring than displayed on the screen.” In these hostile and dangerous worlds created for our entertainment, cynicism is warranted and often turns out to be essential for survival, suggesting that those who endorse it are likely to be the smart ones. Our cross-cultural
analyses indirectly support this idea, showing that the negative association between competence and cynicism gets
weaker with increasing levels of environmental hostility, such that in the most corrupt countries in our sample, competent individuals are not necessarily less cynical than their less competent counterparts (see Table 4).
This observation inevitably leads to the conclusion that whether the “cynical genius” belief represents an illusion or not must depend on the sociocultural environment.

* the idea of cynical individuals being more competent, intelligent, and experienced than less cynical ones appears to be quite common and widespread, yet, as demonstrated by our estimates of the true empirical associations between cynicism and competence, largely illusory. As Stephan Colbert, an American comedian, writer, and television host, phrased it, “Cynicism masquerades as wisdom, but it is the furthest thing from it.”

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been noted in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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