Tuesday, August 16, 2022

From 2018... Against commonly held views, cynical individuals generally do worse on cognitive ability and academic competency tasks

 From 2018... The Cynical Genius Illusion: Exploring and Debunking Lay Beliefs About Cynicism and Competence. Olga Stavrova, Daniel Ehlebracht. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, July 11, 2018. https://doi.org/10.1177/0146167218783195

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

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., 2016; Haukkala, Konttinen, Laatikainen, Kawachi, & Uutela, 2010; Stavrova & Ehlebracht, 2016). In contrast, in popular culture, cynicism seems to have a better reputation. For example, in film and fiction, the most cynical characters (e.g., Sherlock Holmes or Dr. 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. Our results revealed that laypeople tend to endorse the “cynical genius” belief—that is, believed that cynical individuals would do better on a variety of cognitive tasks and cognitive ability tests than their less cynical counterparts. An examination of empirical associations between cynicism and competence based on the data of about 200,000 individuals from 30 countries debunked the “cynical genius” belief as illusionary. 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? Literature on the negativity bias (Baumeister, Bratslavsky, Finkenauer, & Vohs, 2001) and loss aversion (Kahneman & Tversky, 1979) might give a clue. Findings from these research fields suggest that pain associated with negative outcomes (e.g., betrayed trust) is stronger than pleasure associated with positive outcomes (e.g., rewarded trust). Consequently, individuals might be more aware of the negative consequences of other people’s gullibility than of the positive consequences that a trusting stance and positive view of human nature often convey.

In addition, according to insights from trust research (Fetchenhauer & Dunning, 2010), when people endorse a cynical stance concerning others and consequently forgo trust, they usually do not even get a chance to learn whether their untrustworthiness assumption was correct and being cynical thus spared them a “loss”—or whether it was incorrect and therefore denied them a “win.” In other words, cynicism often precludes the possibility of experiencing negative outcomes. 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. After all, they are highly unlikely to be betrayed, deceived, and exploited, whereas it usually remains unknown whether their cynicism resulted in missed opportunities.

Finally, the abundance of smart and witty cynics in fiction might fuel the “cynical genius illusion” as well. As the primary goal of fiction is entertainment, fictional worlds are typically more dangerous, their villains are meaner, and the costs of mistakes are higher than in reality—or, as Barack Obama (2014) put it referring to the House of Cards series: “Life in Washington is a little more boring than displayed on the screen.” In these hostile and dangerous worlds created for our entertainment, cynicism is warranted and often turns out to be essential for survival, suggesting that those who endorse it are likely to be the smart ones. 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).

This observation inevitably leads to the conclusion that whether the “cynical genius” belief represents an illusion or not must depend on the sociocultural environment. 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. It is possible that cross-cultural differences in the perceived association between cynicism and competence are also explained in part by the degree to which cynicism is warranted in a particular sociocultural context, with a stronger “cynical genius” belief in more versus less corrupt countries. In this case, perceived and actual associations between cynicism and competence might covary at the country level suggesting that there might be some truth to the “cynical genius illusion” after all.

Although our reliance on large-scale publicly available datasets (Studies 4-6) 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.g., perceived ability to solve math problems) and the latter (e.g., actual performance on numeracy tests), we are confident in the validity of our conclusions. It is also important to note that even though the “cynical genius belief” emerged consistently across the studies, its effect size showed substantial variation across the measures of cognitive competence, with the strongest effect obtained for items reflecting mathematical competence and the weakest effect obtained for items associated with verbal skills. It seems that people like to think that those who are good at scrutinizing numbers must also be good at scrutinizing other people’s intentions. Finally, besides a belief in cynics’ “cognitive competence,” our participants showed an even stronger belief in cynics’ “social incompetence.” This belief as well as the question of whether it corresponds to reality might be worth a separate, more thorough (e.g., using more diverse social tasks) investigation.

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. However, another causal direction is possible as well: As cynicism is closely related to distrust (Singelis, Hubbard, Her, & An, 2003), cynical (vs. less cynical) individuals might be more distrustful of the opinions and knowledge of others, a behavior that can eventually prevent them from expanding their knowledge and understanding. We hope that future studies will pick up here and explore the causal directions underlying both perceived (i.e., lay beliefs) and empirical association between competence and cynicism.

To conclude, the idea of cynical individuals being more competent, intelligent, and experienced than less cynical ones appears to be quite common and widespread, yet, as demonstrated by our estimates of the true empirical associations between cynicism and competence, largely illusory. As Stephan Colbert, an American comedian, writer, and television host, phrased it, “Cynicism masquerades as wisdom, but it is the furthest thing from it.”