Cynics Beware

We think cynics are smart. But cynical individuals are worse off than the rest of us. What does that mean for a cynical society?

There’s a song that comes up in my Spotify feed quite often.

Over the past year, it’s become one of my favorites. It’s called Cynicism, and it’s performed by Nana Grizol. You can listen to it here:

There’s so much that I could say about this song, but I want to really focus on its last two lines:

Cynicism isn't wisdom, it's a lazy way to say that you've been burned

It seems, if anything, you'd be less certain after everything you ever learned

The Cynicism Schism

Venture online these days and it’s hard to miss the cynics. From dunking on bad takes to using snark to get a point across, it’s incredibly easy to witness (and to partake in) cynicism.

I’m guilty of it too! Far be it from me to tell others whether or not to be cynical.

But we appear to be confused about cynicism. In fact, we appear to conflate it with wisdom all the time. We confuse dunking for disproving, snark for smartness.

However, cynics are no wiser or better than the rest of us. If anything, they’re worse!

A 2019 study found that, while we tend to perceive cynics as more intelligent or capable, they perform worse than non-cynics in various cognitive and practical tasks.

And this has a real financial impact on cynics!

In a 2009 NBER working paper, researchers investigated the correlation between how trusting a person was and how financially well-off they became. They found that “individuals with overly pessimistic beliefs avoid being cheated, but give up profitable opportunities, therefore underperforming.”

A 2011 NBER report furthered this discussion by stating:

Trusting individuals are significantly more likely to buy stocks and risky assets and, conditional on investing in stock, they invest a larger share of their wealth in stocks.

We see cynics as smart, and perceive cynical behavior as a sign of intelligence or correctness. But we couldn’t be more wrong.

Cynicism is a disease. And it’s contagious.

Cyclical Cynicism

This problem of cynicism wouldn’t be a big deal in a vacuum.

But we don’t live in a vacuum. As social creatures, the way we treat one another often spreads like wildfire. This is a huge problem.

After all, if cynical individuals underperform, what does that mean for cynical societies?

In a recent paper, Stanford psychologists explained:

when one person treats another cynically, that second person can become more selfish. In a recent study, receivers in a trust game are made to feel distrusted. This actually makes them more untrustworthy

When we act cynically and distrust one someone, we don’t just hurt their feelings; we actually make them more distrustful and more cynical of others! This cascading effect ends up reducing how much we trust each other in our daily lives, and how trustworthy we are ourselves.

Breaking Cynicism

So if cynicism is harmful, and cynicism is contagious, how do we fight it?

It’s simple: opt out.

What I mean is this:

  • Cynicism is such a strong and pervasive force that it will withstand any upfront assault.

  • Cynicism cannot be reasoned with.

  • In trying to directly fight cynical behavior, it is more likely that you will become cynical than convince a cynic to abandon their disease.

  • So the best way to stop its spread is to opt out of cynicism point blank.

This means making a choice about whether to take part in every conversation.

It means choosing not to dunk on bad takes online.

It means choosing to be kind when critiquing one another.

It means doing all of this in spite of those same cynics likely dunking on you or peddling snark with no way for you to fight back.

It is emotional pacifism. It’s hard. It’s tedious. It sacrifices the dopamine hit you get when obliterating someone’s bad argument online.

But it’s the only path that doesn’t include succumbing to cynicism, making our lives and our world worse, and sacrificing what opportunities we have on the altar of trendy pessimism.

And it’s the path worth taking.

For each of us.

This is as much a message to myself as it is a post for you.

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