Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Competent individuals endorsed cynicism only if it was warranted in a given sociocultural environment; less competent individuals embraced cynicism unconditionally, maybe an adaptive default strategy to avoid the potential costs of falling prey to others’ cunning

The Cynical Genius Illusion: Exploring and Debunking Lay Beliefs About Cynicism and Competence. Olga Stavrova, Daniel Ehlebracht. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin,

Abstract: Cynicism refers to a negative appraisal of human nature—a belief that self-interest is the ultimate motive guiding human behavior. We explored laypersons’ beliefs about cynicism and competence and to what extent these beliefs correspond to reality. Four studies showed that laypeople tend to believe in cynical individuals’ cognitive superiority. A further three studies based on the data of about 200,000 individuals from 30 countries debunked these lay beliefs as illusionary by revealing that cynical (vs. less cynical) individuals generally do worse on cognitive ability and academic competency tasks. Cross-cultural analyses showed that competent individuals held contingent attitudes and endorsed cynicism only if it was warranted in a given sociocultural environment. Less competent individuals embraced cynicism unconditionally, suggesting that—at low levels of competence—holding a cynical worldview might represent an adaptive default strategy to avoid the potential costs of falling prey to others’ cunning.

Keywords: cynicism, competence, lay theories, social perception

Beside the fact that cynicism and wisdom are often intertwined in philosophy, literature, and popular culture, there are multiple other reasons for laypeople to associate cynicism with competence. Cynicism reflects a worldview that human nature is morally corrupt and human actions are driven by self-interest. The power of self-interest as the ultimate motive of human behavior has been discussed in multiple scientific disciplines (Cropanzano, Goldman, & Folger, 2005; Miller & Ratner, 1998). In evolutionary biology, selfinterested behavioral strategies are sometimes described as fitness maximizing and therefore .smart. in evolutionary terms. In neoliberal economic theory, the ability to pursue self-interest is regarded as a sign of perfect rationality (homo oeconomicus). These ideas are widely accepted among laypeople (Bay-Cheng, Fitz, Alizaga, & Zucker, 2015), suggesting that adopting a cynical view and seeing others. behavior as driven by self-interest might constitute a sign of competence in laypeople.s eyes.

At the same time, laypeople might believe cynicism to be diagnostic of substantial life experience. Many people tend to think of life as generally .nasty, brutish and short. (Norton, Anik, Aknin, & Dunn, 2011); hence, accumulating life experience can be considered as inevitably leading to the endorsement of a negative, cynical view. Indeed, research on generalized trust has recently shown that, once the perception of moral character is held constant, distrust can sometimes be seen as a sign of competence (Evans & van de Calseyde, 2017). Similarly, as people generally tend to exaggerate the degree to which others. behavior is driven by egoistic motives (Miller, 1999; Miller & Ratner, 1998), chronically high levels of suspiciousness and cynicism may be considered a sign of competence and experience in dealing with other people.

From an evolutionary perspective, the suspiciousness, precautionary reasoning, and endorsement of the .better safe than sorry. heuristic inherent to cynicism might be seen as features of a competent decision maker (Haselton & Nettle, 2006; Johnson, Blumstein, Fowler, & Haselton, 2013).  According to the error management theory (Haselton & Buss, 2000), in many domains the consequences of false negative errors (e.g., believing that someone is trustworthy when they really are not) have often been more costly than false positive errors (e.g., believing that someone is untrustworthy when they really are trustworthy) over human evolutionary history, making the cognitive system of modern humans biased toward false alarms. As endorsing a cynical view is reflected in a stronger propensity to avoid false negative errors (e.g., the best way not to misplace one.s trust is not to trust at all), cynicism might be seen as a sign of competence.  Taken together, these arguments suggest that, in laypersons.  beliefs, cynicism might be positively associated with competence.

Cynicism and Competence in Reality
Even though social observers might think that being too cynical is wiser than being not cynical enough, this belief might not mirror the real associations of cynicism and competence.  Indeed, studies using the trust game showed that people typically earned more if they were willing to trust strangers rather than not (e.g., Fetchenhauer & Dunning, 2010).  Longitudinal studies corroborated this idea, suggesting that cynical individuals earn lower incomes due to their ineptitude for cooperation, and cynicism might therefore be not that smart in terms of financial success (Stavrova & Ehlebracht, 2016).

Further studies demonstrated that cynicism is more likely to be a worldview endorsed by individuals with lower rather than higher levels of education (Haukkala, 2002; Stavrova & Ehlebracht, 2018) and intelligent individuals. behavior was shown to be more likely to depart from the norms of selfinterest (Solon, 2014). Higher levels of education and competence in a broader sense might help individuals detect and avoid potential deceit in the first place, thus reducing the probability of negative social experiences, which might in turn contribute to a more positive view of human nature (Yamagishi, Kikuchi, & Kosugi, 1999). Indeed a number of studies showed general cognitive ability to be negatively related to cynical hostility (Barnes et al., 2009; Mortensen, Barefoot, & Avlund, 2012) and positively related to trust (Carl, 2014; Carl & Billari, 2014; Hooghe, Marien, & de Vroome, 2012; Oskarsson, Dawes, Johannesson, & Magnusson, 2012; Sturgis, Read, & Allum, 2010). However, even though intelligent individuals are more likely to trust strangers, high IQ is not a good predictor of the ability to differentiate between trustworthy and untrustworthy targets (Bonnefon, Hopfensitz, & De Neys, 2013). In addition, a recent meta-analysis failed to detect an association between measures of cognitive ability and Machiavellianism.a concept that includes a "cynical beliefs about human nature" facet (O.Boyle, Forsyth, Banks, & Story, 2013).

Even if a high level of competence might not allow people to accurately discriminate between honest and dishonest interaction partners, it might allow them to correctly recognize situations or environments where cynicism regarding other people.s motives and intentions might be warranted or not. In other words, high levels of competence might allow individuals to correctly identify the .corruptness. of their environment and adjust their level of cynicism to match it.  Following this reasoning, high-competence individuals might hold adaptable attitudes and recur to cynicism only when it seems warranted, while their less competent counterparts might show more cognitive rigidity and.relying on the .better safe than sorry. heuristic.tend to endorse cynicism indiscriminately. Consistent with evolutionary principles, such a .better safe than sorry. strategy can prove efficient when one lacks the ability to correctly identify the relevant features of the sociocultural context one is confronted with and determine whether cynicism is warranted or not (Brumbach, Figueredo, & Ellis, 2009; Gross, 1996). In this sense, at lower levels of competence, holding a negative, cynical view as a default (assuming that people are guided by self-interest unless proven otherwise) might represent a more viable strategy than holding an overly positive view of others' morality.

In the present research, we assumed that even though cynicism might be positively associated with competence in laypeople.s beliefs, in reality, more competent individuals are less, rather than more, likely to endorse a cynical worldview, giving rise to what can be described as a .cynical genius illusion..  Consistent with the evolutionary arguments laid out above, we also predicted that the negative association between competence and cynicism will depend on the environment.s sociocultural climate. Highly competent individuals will be more likely to endorse cynicism if they live in a country where cynical views seem justified.for example, in a country with corrupted institutions and a weak rule of law.whereas low-competence individuals will embrace cynicism regardless of the characteristics of the sociocultural environment they face.

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