Why Cynicism Can Hold You Back

By Kira M. Newman | June 11, 2015 | 0 comments

A new study suggests that distrusting human nature can actually hurt your income. The reason why might surprise you!

Don’t be so trusting. Watch your back. You can’t be too careful. That’s the way to get ahead in life, right?

A recent paper by researchers at the University of Cologne casts some doubt on this idea. The authors found that people who are cynical about human nature—who see others as egoistic, deceitful, and evil—tend to earn less money. The results suggest that if you are wary of giving your trust, worry about being taken advantage of, and think everyone is out for themselves, you’re likely to have a lower income now (and in the future) than people with a more rosy view of humanity.

Thanks to past research, we know that certain types of cynics tend to have worse psychological health, physical health, and relationships. Several studies even found that they have lower socioeconomic status, but none had pinpointed why this might be the case.

So researchers Olga Stavrova and Daniel Ehlebracht set out looking for some answers. In a series of five studies, they analyzed publicly available data from surveys of more than 68,000 Americans and Europeans, all conducted in the past 15 years. The surveys asked about respondents’ income and tried to gauge cynicism through questions like “Do you believe that most people would exploit you if they had the opportunity or would attempt to be fair toward you?”

And sure enough, people who had cynical views about human nature earned less money. Americans who were cynical earned less than their idealistic peers at the time of the initial survey, as well as two and nine years later. Cynical Germans earned less in every single one of the following nine years, culminating in a significant gap: The least cynical people increased their monthly salary by $300, while the big cynics saw no increase at all.

But why? It’s possible that cynics have something else in common that is the real cause of lower income—for example, they tend to be more neurotic and introverted, and have lower self-esteem, worse health, and less education. Yet in the five studies, none of these factors were enough to explain away cynicism’s effect on income. In short, something about being a cynic seemed to be bringing down paychecks.

The researchers found some tentative evidence for what that might be in their final study, which analyzed data from 41 countries. They found a curious pattern: Cynicism was less problematic in countries where it seemed justified. It was less financially detrimental to be a cynic in countries with more murders, more people who see others as selfish and predatory, and less giving (measured by rates of charity memberships, donations, and helping strangers). In fact, in countries with the highest homicide rates, people who were cynical about human nature actually had slightly higher income. When your fellow citizens won’t offer you help and might just kill you, it pays to be a cynic.

Meanwhile, in countries where help is abundant and murder infrequent, cynics are basically shooting themselves in the foot. They earn less because they don’t pursue valuable opportunities that look attractive to idealists, like asking for help, collaborating, and making compromises.

“Cynical individuals are likely to lack the ability (or willingness) to rely on others,” the researchers explain. “They are likely to suspect mean motives behind other people’s behavior, might be less likely to join collaborative efforts, and avoid asking for help in case of need, which may eventually undermine their economic success.”

Cynicism and low income may even be a vicious circle: Cynics earn less money, which could make them more cynical, which could make them avoid behaviors that would boost their income.

If you’re a cynic but want to change your attitude, there are specific steps you can take. Here are some science-based activities for cultivating optimism about yourself and others from our new site Greater Good in Action:

Why might that last activity, forgiveness, be important? Because it involves giving people the benefit of the doubt, rather than terminating a relationship if they make one misstep. Isn’t that what you’d want from other people?

In general, tit for tat is the most successful strategy in a long-term prisoner’s dilemma game, a model for cooperative situations. Start cooperative and mirror your partner’s actions from then on. “The potential benefits of cooperation are now larger than ever,” Stavrova and Ehlebracht note.

So try putting a little faith in humanity—you might be pleasantly surprised. At any rate, your bank account will thank you.

Tracker Pixel for Entry
 
 
 

Greater Good wants to know:
Do you think this article will influence your opinions or behavior?

  • Very Likely

  • Likely

  • Unlikely

  • Very Unlikely

  • Not sure

 
About The Author

Kira M. Newman is an editor and web producer at the Greater Good Science Center. She is also the creator of The Year of Happy, a year-long course in the science of happiness, and CaféHappy, a Toronto-based meetup. Follow her on Twitter!

  

Like this article?

Here's what you can do:

Donate
 
  
 
blog comments powered by Disqus
 

Most...

  
  

Greater Good Events

The Science of Happiness
Online
Next Session of Our Acclaimed Course Begins Sept. 6, 2016


The Science of Happiness

A free online course exploring the roots of a happy, meaningful life. Co-taught by the GGSC’s Dacher Keltner and Emiliana Simon-Thomas. Up to 16 CE credit hours available.


» ALL EVENTS
 
 

Take a Greater Good Quiz!

How compassionate are you? How generous, grateful, or forgiving? Find out!

» TAKE A QUIZ
 

Watch Greater Good Videos

Jon Kabat-Zinn

Talks by inspiring speakers like Jon Kabat-Zinn, Dacher Keltner, and Barbara Fredrickson.

Watch
 

Greater Good Resources

 
 
» MORE STUDIES
 
 
» MORE ORGS
 

Book of the Week

The Politics of Happiness By Derek Bok Author and former Harvard president, Derek Bok, makes the case that findings from positive psychology should inform social policies, helping the public benefit from what scientists have learned about the roots of a happy, meaningful life.

» READ MORE
 
Is she flirting with you? Take the quiz and find out.
"It is a great good and a great gift, this Greater Good. I bow to you for your efforts to bring these uplifting and illuminating expressions of humanity, grounded in good science, to the attention of us all."  
Jon Kabat-Zinn

Best-selling author and founder of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program

thnx advertisement