Cynicism is toxic

Cynics fool themselves by thinking they can’t be fooled.

The cynic imagines he’s guarding himself against being duped. He’s not naive, he’s worldly wise, so he’s not about to get taken in — but this psychic insulation comes at a price.

The cynic is cautious and mistrustful. Worst of all, the cynic by relying too much on his own counsel, saps the foundation of curiosity, which is the ability to be surprised.

While the ability to develop and sustain an open mind has obvious psychological value, neurologists now say that it’s also necessary for the health of the brain. Cynicism leads towards dementia.

One of the researchers in a new study suggests that the latest findings may offer insights on how to reduce the risks of dementia, yet that seems to imply that people might be less inclined to become cynical simply by knowing that its bad for their health. How are we to reduce the risks of becoming cynical in the first place?

One of the most disturbing findings of a recent Pew Research Center survey, Millenials in Adulthood, was this:

In response to a long-standing social science survey question, “Generally speaking, would you say that most people can be trusted or that you can’t be too careful in dealing with people,” just 19% of Millennials say most people can be trusted, compared with 31% of Gen Xers, 37% of Silents and 40% of Boomers.

While this trust deficit among Millennials no doubt has multiple causes, such as the socially fragmented nature of our digital world, I don’t believe that there has ever before been a generation so thoroughly trained in fear. Beneath cynicism lurks fear.

The fear may have calmed greatly since the days of post-9/11 hysteria, yet it has not gone away. It’s the background noise of American life. It might no longer be focused so strongly on terrorism, since there are plenty of other reasons to fear — some baseless, some over-stated, and some underestimated. But the aggregation of all these fears produces a pervasive mistrust of life.

ScienceDaily: People with high levels of cynical distrust may be more likely to develop dementia, according to a study published in the May 28, 2014, online issue of Neurology®, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology.

Cynical distrust, which is defined as the belief that others are mainly motivated by selfish concerns, has been associated with other health problems, such as heart disease. This is the first study to look at the relationship between cynicism and dementia.

“These results add to the evidence that people’s view on life and personality may have an impact on their health,” said study author Anna-Maija Tolppanen, PhD, of the University of Eastern Finland in Kuopio. “Understanding how a personality trait like cynicism affects risk for dementia might provide us with important insights on how to reduce risks for dementia.”

For the study, 1,449 people with an average age of 71 were given tests for dementia and a questionnaire to measure their level of cynicism. The questionnaire has been shown to be reliable, and people’s scores tend to remain stable over periods of several years. People are asked how much they agree with statements such as “I think most people would lie to get ahead,” “It is safer to trust nobody” and “Most people will use somewhat unfair reasons to gain profit or an advantage rather than lose it.” Based on their scores, participants were grouped in low, moderate and high levels of cynical distrust.

A total of 622 people completed two tests for dementia, with the last one an average of eight years after the study started. During that time, 46 people were diagnosed with dementia. Once researchers adjusted for other factors that could affect dementia risk, such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol and smoking, people with high levels of cynical distrust were three times more likely to develop dementia than people with low levels of cynicism. Of the 164 people with high levels of cynicism, 14 people developed dementia, compared to nine of the 212 people with low levels of cynicism.

The study also looked at whether people with high levels of cynicism were more likely to die sooner than people with low levels of cynicism. A total of 1,146 people were included in this part of the analysis, and 361 people died during the average of 10 years of follow-up. High cynicism was initially associated with earlier death, but after researchers accounted for factors such as socioeconomic status, behaviors such as smoking and health status, there was no longer any link between cynicism and earlier death.

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7 thoughts on “Cynicism is toxic

  1. Chet

    “Cynicism is toxic”

    This is an interesting thought provoking concept and might, in varying degrees, be applicable to all societies. However, the study was conducted in Finland a country with a homogeneous population (93% Finnish), 80% Christian with the balance having no religion, one of the world’s most extensive welfare systems, free education and universal healthcare. So, being cynical in this social democratic environment may lead to or be a sign of potential psychological problems.

    However, using the same diagnosis in a diverse society (U.S.) with a predatory financial system (usurious interest rates, fraudulent loans, etc.), a weak or nonexistent social safety net, weak consumer protections, growing privatization of public services and very sophisticated and intensive commercial propaganda (advertising) may not result in the same psychological problems or at least to the same degree. Cynicism might be considered an adaptive trait necessary to cope with the dysfunctional or predatory social environment. It’s not surprising that cynicism is increasing in the U.S. as income inequality, political corruption and neo-liberalism is increasing.

    It will be interesting to see if the results of studies conducted in the U.S. will have similar outcomes of those in Finland.

  2. Paul Woodward Post author

    With any human study, it’s always good to note what population group the subjects were drawn from. The fact that Americans are not representative of the rest of the world was highlighted in “The Weirdest People in the World.” So, I guess it’s possible that this study on Finns might not be replicated with Americans.

    Having said that, I’m skeptical about this idea of cynicism being adaptive.

    However predatorial a society this might seem, it’s not as dangerous as life in the wild. The way animals have adapted to threats is through alertness. Cynicism, on the other hand, seems to be a particularly human form of resignation. Rather than triggering an active response to danger, cynicism justifies disengagement. It involves withdrawing inside a comfort zone where a person who feels powerless in an ugly world, can feel ok about tolerating the status quo.

    It’s always important to differentiate between cynicism and skepticism. Skepticism is a form of alertness — a willingness to question and not be a blind believer. But the cynic has stopped questioning.

    Even if that doesn’t lead to dementia, it results in a closed mind.

  3. Syd

    “I try to be cynical but it’s impossible to keep up.” — Lilly Tomlin

    I’ll admit cynicism isn’t an attractive quality, and I try to suppress mine in mixed company, but after 6 years of hope and change and Republican nihilism, I think it’s hard to deny the idea that the cynics might have a point.

    The recent UN IPCC report said that avoiding catastrophic climate change would cost the world .06% in annual consumption. .06%!! That’s all it would cost to save our kids from starving to death, and yet there’s not a country in the world willing to make that sacrifice. Meanwhile our governments are spending a fortune building a surveillance society that would make Orwell gasp. What does that say about the human race?

    The fact that cynicism is unhealthy is beside the point. Sober people die younger than those who drink.

  4. Chet

    While I might agree with some of your comments if a person was a cynic in all aspects of their life; that would surely be a limiting and suffocating view of life. I assume they exist but I have yet to meet such a person. Generally I’ve found people to by cynical in some aspects of life, such as political cynics, and yet show optimism and resilience in their family life.

    I would paraphrase Irving Kristol’s well-known comment, “A cynic is a skeptic who has been mugged by reality”.

    As George Bernard Shaw said: “The power of accurate observation is commonly called cynicism by those who don’t have it”. It’s the cynics that point out the gulf between society’s ideals and its practices and provide a useful service to society.

  5. H.Rust

    I think it was H.L.Mencken who said – “The capacity to engage in rational thinking is often referred to as cynicism, by those who don’t have it.” ( not his exact words ) He was often spot-on with his writings, and hated by those, whose – “power must not be exposed to the sunlight”. Chomsky in the Gulf News 2.July 2014. With or without dementia, he loved what he was doing, which to him must have been worth much more than an “open mind”.

  6. Paul Woodward Post author

    Perhaps the most predictable thing about cynicism is that most people who identifies themselves as cynics think it’s a virtue.

    If cynicism was the sine quo non of rationality, one would expect to find it in abundance among scientists, yet by and large, scientists tend to be among the least cynical of folks. Science exemplifies the sharp distinction between cynicism and skepticism.

    The cynic takes pride in his ability to discern what’s wrong with the world — and then explain why it won’t change.

    For the cynic, every revolution is doomed to fail.

    That the cynic even bothers pointing out that the world is going to hell makes it clear he remains troubled by this fate even while professing his disillusionment.

    In the guise of speaking the truth, the cynic wants to justify his own inaction.

    The bottom line is that cynicism is just another anesthetic — like opium or alcohol.

    Finding ways of taking pain away — of learning how to feel less or feel nothing — can be quite successful in a narrow way. But it amounts to no more than learning how to be dead while one remains alive.

    Cynicism generally results not from a self-inflicted injury, but it does no more than cover the wound while allowing it to fester.

  7. H.Rust

    I guess one could interpret a cynics worldview in many ways, to suit ones own opinion.

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