People are growing increasingly cynical–and that’s a dangerous trend. This trait inherently believes in the fact that others are motivated by selfishness and greed.
In fact, the Pew Research Center and its years of studies and statistics have indicated that fewer and fewer Americans trust each other as time goes on. In other words, lots more people are cynical now than they were a couple of decades ago.
For many, cynicism is a protective mechanism. There’s a lot of negativity in the world, and those who continue to be optimistic can often find their hopes dashed as such. Thus, many turn to a darker view of the planet and its population. When you prepare for the worst, you can’t be hurt by those things. It’s like a shield.
As it turns out, this probably isn’t the best way of thinking – or so says Jamil Zaki, the Stanford Social Neuroscience Lab director. He’s also a professor of psychology at Stanford University. Jamil Zaki’s work primarily covers empathy and how it can be built and has worked on the subject printed in various renowned publications. In other words, if there’s anyone qualified as an expert on this idea, he’d be your guy!
According to Jamil Zaki, the epidemic of cynicism that we face now is a dangerous spiral, and it’s a cycle that we need to break. In August 2021, he spoke at an official TED conference with some exciting insights into the dangers of this way of thinking. Here’s how a Stanford professor explains four ways being cynical is a trap.
1. Being Cynical Breeds More Cynicism
We often have an idea of cynics that indicates they’re outliers. We think of them as the grumpy older man yelling at kids to get off his porch. Or perhaps we think of them as jaded, troubled individuals – people outside of the norm. But as cynicism climbs in the face of the world’s problems, that cynical nature only multiplies.
Jamil Zaki references an exciting study in southeastern Brazil concerning a pair of fishing villages separated by 30 miles. One fishing village requires sea fishing, where villagers must work together in groups. One fishing village does lake fishing, and each fisherman works individually.
The study took members from both villages and put them through a series of social tests. As it turns out, those from the sea were better at cooperation and trusting others. Meanwhile, those from the lake village tended to compete with others and were much more mistrustful. The environment that they were used to entirely dictated their behaviors. On top of that, the longer they’d spent in each domain, the more deeply entrenched these values were.
Of course, there’s a lot of nuance to a study like this, but Jamil Zaki’s point is simple. An environment of cynical negativity only perpetuates itself. When everything around you is negative, it’s hard to break free from that mindset, polluting everything you do. Worse still, it’s likely to infect other people.
This is the significant danger of the trap of being cynical. A cynical community will beget more cynicism. The things you fear will manifest into reality, almost through a self-fulfilling prophecy. That social world molds and shapes humankind, shaping the natural world in turn. Until we all start working on being more trusting, that cynical nature will prevail!
2. Being Cynical Damages Your Trust For Others
As we’ve mentioned, being cynical involves being distrustful of others. You naturally believe in the negativity of human nature and therefore have difficulty trusting that others have good intentions.
Many people believe that this mistrustful nature is more accurate than those who aren’t cynical. There’s an idea that cynics are people who are “wise,” or people who have glimpsed the truth of humanity. Others view them as more intelligent than total optimists. Supposedly, they’re able to see the “true nature”s of people well and don’t fall for lies and deceit.
But, as Jamal Zaki explains, this is not the case! In fact, this is a total myth. A study has shown that cynical individuals tend to have trouble detecting lies. They assume that liars are all around them and get it wrong constantly. Meanwhile, those who aren’t harmful and have a higher generalized trust can tell when someone’s behaving questionably.
This is just another way that being cynical is a trap. You get so lost in a negative perception of those around you that you end up:
- Refusing to trust people with genuine intentions further isolating yourself and even pushing others into more cynical beliefs.
- Treating those who don’t deserve negative treatment with rudeness and distrust, harming and alienating others.
- Seeing the eventual isolation of this behavior as “proof” that your cynicism was proper.
Outcomes Of Cynical Thinking
So, cynics tend to isolate and alienate themselves due to their mistrustful nature. Aside from creating a trap of incorrectly “proven” mistrust, it also cages cynics in for another reason. Specifically, it causes a kind of social isolation that makes cynicism rise. Jamal Zaki explains that pessimists are more likely than non-cynics to:
- Refuse intimacy from others
- Hurt the people around them as a defensive mechanism
- Have suspicions about their friends and family
- Spy on colleagues and people they should be cooperating with
- Refuse to cooperate with the people around them
- Mistreat those around them
This trap of cynicism exists because you create the conditions that you fear most when you’re cynical. You tell a tale to yourself and others that the planet is simply full of villains and bad people, which is a false tale. But when you treat others poorly due to your cynical nature, you create “villains” in your life story out of them.
3. Cynicism Depletes Empathy
The more cynical you are, the less likely you are to be empathic towards those around you. Empathy is Jamil Zaki’s specialty, and he’s conducted all sorts of studies into the matter. Many of his findings indicate that being treated with empathy opens up the door for positive conversations and togetherness across different demographics and groups.
For positivity to bloom, respect has to be given to all parties. This is the best way to bridge divides between different groups of people. Research proves that cynical beliefs about human nature lead to disrespect, which leads to further cynicism. This means that the line between perpetrators and victims becomes progressively more blurred in a vicious cycle.
Disrespect is also often a product of a lack of empathy, and this deficit goes hand-in-hand with cynicism.