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Cynical, pessimistic, sarcastic, satirical imply holding a low opinion of humanity. Cynical suggests a disbelief in the sincerity of human motives: cynical about honesty. Pessimistic implies a more or less habitual disposition to look on the dark side of things, and to believe that the worst will happen: pessimistic as to the future. Sarcastic refers to sneering or making cutting jibes: sarcastic about a profession of faith. Satirical suggests expressing scorn or ridicule by saying the opposite of what one means: a satirical attack on his political promises.

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Hate Hyper-Partisanship? Peccavi E. My Lord Duke E. Cressy Bret Harte. That is, participants believed that a slightly more cynical target would do better on cognitive tasks than a target whose worldview represents a perfect balance with equal levels of cynical and noncynical tendencies. Overall, a clear majority of our participants expected cynical individuals to perform better on a range of cognitive tasks and cognitive ability tests than noncynical individuals. At the same time, individuals clearly differentiated between cognitive and social competences and rated cynics favorably with respect to the former but not the latter.

Importantly, allowing our participants to set an optimum level of cynicism needed for cognitive tasks showed that they generally preferred an elevated although not very high level of cynicism to a moderate one. While in Studies 1 to 3 we explored lay beliefs about the association between cynicism and competence, in Studies 4 to 6 we examined to what extent these beliefs reflect underlying empirical relationships.


In Study 4, we examined the associations between cynicism and different measures of competence, including education, general cognitive ability, and academic competencies in a large-scale nationally representative sample of German adults. Although the study has a longitudinal design with seven waves of data collection covering the time from to , neither competence nor cynicism measures were administered more than once.

That is, the measurement of our variables of interest was spread over 4 years. Responses were given on an point scale. Measures of domain-specific cognitive competencies included reading competence comprehension and reading speed , mathematical competence, scientific literacy, and computer competence informational and technological literacy—ICT literacy. A detailed description of the tests is given in the Supplementary Materials. As the two measures of domain-general cognitive ability and the four domain-specific cognitive competencies showed strong intercorrelations r s between.

I. What is Cynicism?

Responses were given on a 5-point strongly disagree to strongly agree scale. Table 1. To make sure that the negative associations between cynicism, competence, and education are not due to a potential confounding with language proficiency, sociodemographic differences age, gender, household income , and the Big Five personality traits, we conducted a multiple regression analysis with cynicism as the dependent variable, competence index and educational attainment as main predictors, and the other variables mentioned above as controls. In Model 2, we entered the control variables that, all together, explained an additional 6.

Table 2. While Study 4 documented negative associations between competence and cynicism in an adult population aged between 24 and 66 years , Study 5 focused on adolescents and young adults aged between 16 and 23 years.

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We examined whether basic cognitive abilities in adolescence at the age of years predict the endorsement of cynical worldviews 1 to 7 years later, in young adulthood. Although the survey focuses on an adult population, since , it includes an elaborate cognitive ability test that is only completed by household members at the age of 16 to 18 years.

For the present analyses, we combined the data on cognitive ability obtained at the age of 16 to 18 years completed between and with the data on cynical beliefs collected in as part of a regular annual questionnaire. In , sixteen- to eighteen-year-olds completed the cognitive ability test. Since then, it has been completed yearly by between and seventeen-year-olds, resulting in the overall sample of 1, adolescents. Of those, It was developed to measure fluid intelligence—basic cognitive ability that includes processing speed, working memory capacity, logical reasoning, and problem-solving ability.

The test included 20 word analogy tasks, 20 progressive matrices, and a min numerical ability test. A detailed documentation is available in Schupp and Herrmann Table 3. To examine whether the association between cognitive ability and cynicism is robust against controlling for sociodemographic characteristics, we conducted a multiple regression analysis. Model 1 showed that differences in cognitive ability alone explain 2. Adding age, gender, time lag between measures of cognitive ability and cynicism, migration background, and household income explained an additional 1.

Study 6 examined the association between cynicism and competence education, literacy, numeracy, and computer literacy across 30 countries varying in the degree to which a cynical view of others is warranted operationalized via control of corruption and rule of law. Evolutionary scientists have argued that the most successful strategies for survival and reproduction are rarely rigid and inflexible but rather contingent on the specific conditions individuals are facing e.

Consequently, we hypothesized that highly competent individuals will endorse cynicism more if they live in a corrupted versus less corrupted sociocultural climate. In contrast, less competent individuals, due to their inability to accurately detect trustworthiness cues in their environment, will recur to cynicism indiscriminately, that is, regardless of whether it is warranted or not.

The survey was conducted in 30 countries between and and included the data of about , adults. A stratified sampling method was used within each participating country. After removing cases with missing values on key variables cynicism, literacy, numeracy, and education , our sample comprised , individuals aged between 16 and 65 years, The competencies assessed included literacy, numeracy, and problem solving in technology-rich environments ICT literacy. The literacy test consisted of 76 items measuring the ability to identify and locate the needed information, draw inferences, and interpret and evaluate e.

Higher values—higher control of corruption and rule of law—describe sociocultural climates where a cynical worldview is less warranted. Lower values, that is, less control of corruption and less rule of law, describe countries where cynicism is more likely to be justified. Country-level statistics are shown in Table 4. As shown in Table 4 and Figure 3 , these associations are negative and significant in the largest majority of the countries studied.

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Table 4. Figure 3. Within-country zero-order correlations between cynicism and competence countries with no available data are white , Study 6. Thus, we conducted a series of multilevel regression analyses with group mean-centered competence values, country-level social climate and their interaction as predictors, and cynicism as dependent variable. The results are shown in Table 5. The pattern of these interactions is shown in Figure 4. Table 5.

The Cynical Genius Illusion: Exploring and Debunking Lay Beliefs About Cynicism and Competence.

Figure 4. Effects of education and competencies on cynicism as a function of country social climate rule of law and control of corruption; higher values reflect a lower justifiability of cynicism. Even though the lay theory linking cynicism to higher levels of competence is quite popular Studies , it appears not to hold up against empirical evidence. In contrast to what many people tend to believe, cynical individuals are typically not more but rather less competent than their less cynical counterparts.

Study 4 detected a negative association between competence and cynicism across diverse measures of competence educational attainment, general cognitive ability, and academic competencies in adults, and Study 5 showed that cognitive ability in adolescence predicted less cynicism up to 7 years later.

Cynical | Definition of Cynical at

Study 6 found a negative association between cynicism and competence in almost each of 30 countries examined. Importantly, these cross-cultural results showed that high-competence individuals were better able to adjust their level of cynicism depending on their sociocultural environment. In contrast, their less competent counterparts embraced cynicism almost regardless of the degree to which such a worldview was warranted in their sociocultural context or not. The academic literature has consistently painted a dim picture of cynicism, linking it to bad health outcomes, lower well-being, poor relationship quality, and decreased financial success Chen et al.

In contrast, in popular culture, cynicism seems to have a better reputation. For example, in film and fiction, the most cynical characters e. House , although lonely and unhappy, are frequently painted as the most intelligent, witty, experienced, and knowledgeable ones. In the present studies, we explored lay beliefs about the association between cynicism and competence and tested whether these beliefs reflect empirical associations between these traits.

Cynical individuals are likely to do worse rather than better on cognitive tasks, cognitive abilities, and competencies tests, and tend to be less educated than less cynical individuals. What is the source of the discrepancy between lay beliefs and reality? Findings from these research fields suggest that pain associated with negative outcomes e. As a result, it might be perceived as a smarter, more successful strategy and cynical individuals might be attributed higher levels of competence than their less cynical counterparts.

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  5. After all, they are highly unlikely to be betrayed, deceived, and exploited, whereas it usually remains unknown whether their cynicism resulted in missed opportunities. Our cross-cultural analyses indirectly support this idea, showing that the negative association between competence and cynicism gets weaker with increasing levels of environmental hostility, such that in the most corrupt countries in our sample, competent individuals are not necessarily less cynical than their less competent counterparts see Table 4. While we explored the empirical association between cynicism and competence across 30 countries, our conclusions regarding the perceived association are restricted to three Western countries: United States, United Kingdom, and Germany.

    We acknowledge that it is highly important to explore lay beliefs in other cultural contexts as well.

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    Although our reliance on large-scale publicly available datasets Studies facilitated a precise assessment of the empirical associations between cynicism and competence, it did not allow for a direct comparison between the actual empirical associations and lay beliefs about these associations within a given sample. As we took great care to ensure the conceptual equivalence between the measures of the former e.

    While we have shown cynicism to be positively associated with competence in lay beliefs, it is less clear what causal theory people use to explain this association. Do they think that cynicism makes people more competent or that higher levels of competence turn people into cynics? A similar question arises with respect to the causality of the empirical associations between competence and cynicism. However, higher levels of cognitive ability, academic competence, and education might protect from adverse life experiences, not only as they allow discovering potential fraud but also as they increase the chances of living in a safe and friendly environment, providing more evidence for a positive than for a negative view of human nature and consequently preventing cynicism development.

    Our findings showing that cognitive ability in adolescence contributes to decreased levels of cynicism in adulthood provide some preliminary support for a causal effect of competence.

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