Why Cynicism Can Hold You Back

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 cast some doubt on this idea. They found that people who are cynical about human nature—who see others as egoistic, deceitful, and evil—tend to earn less money. If you are wary of giving your trust, worry about being taken advantage of, and think everyone is out for himself, 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 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.


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