Cynicism (contemporary)

"Cynical" redirects here. For the classical philosophy, see Cynicism (philosophy). For other uses, see Cynic.

Cynicism is an attitude or state of mind characterized by a general distrust of others' motives.[1] A cynic may have a general lack of faith or hope in the human species or people motivated by ambition, desire, greed, gratification, materialism, goals, and opinions that a cynic perceives as vain, unobtainable, or ultimately meaningless and therefore deserving of ridicule or admonishment. A common misapplication of this attitude involves its attribution to individuals who emote well-thought-out expressions of skepticism. Such miscategorization may occur as the result of either inexperience and/or a belief system in which the innate goodness of man is considered an important tenet or even an irrefutable fact. Thus, contemporary usage incorporates both a form of jaded prudence and (when misapplied) realistic criticism or skepticism. The term originally derives from the ancient Greek philosophers, the Cynics, who rejected all conventions, whether of religion, manners, housing, dress, or decency, instead advocating the pursuit of virtue in accordance with a simple and idealistic way of life.

By the 19th century, emphasis on the ascetic ideals and the critique of current civilization based on how it might fall short of an ideal civilization or negativistic aspects of Cynic philosophy led the modern understanding of cynicism to mean a disposition of disbelief in the sincerity or goodness of human motives and actions. Modern cynicism is a distrust toward professed ethical and social values, especially when there are high expectations concerning society, institutions, and authorities that are unfulfilled. It can manifest itself as a result of frustration, disillusionment, and distrust perceived as owing to organizations, authorities, and other aspects of society.


Modern cynicism has been defined as an attitude of distrust toward claimed ethical and social values and a rejection of the need to be socially involved.[2] It is pessimistic in regards to the capacity of human beings to make correct ethical choices, and one antonym is naiveté.[3] Modern cynicism is sometimes regarded as a product of mass society, especially in those circumstances where the individual believes there is a conflict between society's stated motives and goals and actual motives and goals.[4][5]

In politics

It has been claimed that "healthy skepticism may have given way to corrosive cynicism".[6] Cynicism regarding government or politics can logically lead to political withdrawal and effective political helplessness. In 2013 conservative politician and political theorist William J. Bennett warned that America could "crumble from within; that we would become cynical and withdraw."[7]

Possible effects

A 2004 experiment and paper called The Effects of Strategic News on Political Cynicism, Issue Evaluations, and Policy Support: A Two-Wave Experiment found that the way the news media presents the news can cause political cynicism. The experiment also demonstrated; "a negative relation between efficacy and cynicism suggesting that efficacious citizens were less likely to be cynical about politics." It was found that straight dry, "issues-based" news did not cause political cynicism, but that "Strategic News" and "game news" did. The latter two types of news presentation emphasize:

...the horse race, strategy, and tactics of politics,"..."news coverage of candidate motivations and personalities, focus on disagreement between parties, candidates or voters, and the presence and emphasis on polls in the news," or "positioning the electorate as spectators and candidates as performers," respectively.[8]

Social cynicism

Social cynicism results from excessively high expectations concerning society, institutions and authorities: unfulfilled expectations leads to disillusionment, which releases feelings of disappointment and betrayal.[9]

In organizations, cynicism manifests itself as a general or specific attitude, characterized by frustration, hopelessness, disillusionment and distrust in regard to economic or governmental organizations, managers and/or other aspects of work.[10]

Critical evaluation

Cynicism can appear more active than depression. In his bestselling Critique of Cynical Reason (1983), Peter Sloterdijk defined modern cynics as "borderline melancholics, who can keep their symptoms of depression under control and yet retain the ability to work, whatever might happen ... indeed, this is the essential point in modern cynicism: the ability of its bearers to work—in spite of anything that might happen."[11]

One active aspect of cynicism involves the desire to expose hypocrisy and to point out gaps between ideals and practices.[12] George Bernard Shaw allegedly expressed this succinctly: "The power of accurate observation is commonly called cynicism by those who don't have it".[13]

Health effects

A study[14] published in Neurology journal in 2014 found a link between "cynical distrust" (defined as the belief that others are mainly motivated by selfish concerns) and dementia. The survey included 622 people who were tested for dementia for a period of 8 years. In that period, 46 people were diagnosed with dementia. "Once researchers adjusted for other factors that could affect dementia risk, such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol and smoking, people with high levels of cynical distrust were three times more likely to develop dementia than people with low levels of cynicism. Of the 164 people with high levels of cynicism, 14 people developed dementia, compared to nine of the 212 people with low levels of cynicism."[15]

See also


  1. Navia, Luis E. (1996). Classical Cynicism: A Critical Study. Contributions in philosophy. 58. Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 1. ISBN 9780313300158. Retrieved 2013-11-26. For the cynic, accordingly, hypocrisy and deceitfulness, primitive selfishness and unbounded egoism, and gross materialism and disguised ruthlessness are the hidden characteristics of all human behavior.
  2. Navia, Luis E. (1999). The Adventure of Philosophy. p. 141.
  3. Synonym for cynicism (n) – antonym for cynicism (n) – Thesaurus – MSN Encarta. Encarta. Retrieved 2010-05-14.
  4. Goldfarb, Jeffrey C. (1991). The Cynical Society: The Culture of Politics and the Politics of Culture in American Life. University of Chicago Press. p. 30. Cynicism promotes and is a product of mass society. It makes economic, political, and cultural domination invisible, and casts serious doubts on cultural and political alternatives.
  5. Bewes, Timothy (1997). Cynicism and Postmodernity. Verso. p. 3. ...cynicism appears in the space left empty by mass culture's retreat from politics itself. Political engagement has no option, apparently, but to be cynical...
  6. J. N. Cappella & K. H. Jamieson (1996). "News Frames, Political Cynicism, and Media Cynicism". The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science. 546 (1): 71–84. doi:10.1177/0002716296546001007. The media framing of political news is implicated in "activating, if not creating, cynicism about campaigns, policy, and governance."
  7. Bennett, William J. (5 September 2013). "We Are Not Helpless". National Review Online.
  8. Claes de Vreese, 2004, (Cited by 98) The Effects of Strategic News on Political Cynicism, Issue Evaluations, and Policy Support: A Two-Wave Experiment, The Amsterdam School of Communications Research, - An experimentally manipulated television news story about the enlargement of the European Union was produced in a strategy version and an issue-framed version, which were embedded in an experimental bulletin of a national news program. Results showed that exposure to "strategic news" fueled political cynicism and activated negative associations with the political issue.
  9. Donald L. Kanter and Philip H. Mirvis, (1989). The Cynical Americans - Living and Working in an Age of Discontent and Disillusion. San Francisco
  10. Andersson, L. M.; Bateman, T. S. (1997). "Cynicism in the workplace: Some causes and effects". Journal of Organizational Behavior. 18: 449–469. doi:10.1002/(sici)1099-1379(199709)18:5<449::aid-job808>;2-o.
  11. Sloterdijk, Peter (1987). Critique of Cynical Reason. p. 5.
  12. Midgley, Mary (1998). "The problem of humbug". In Kieran, Matthew. Media Ethics. Routledge. p. 37.
  13. Attributed in Schreier, Benjamin (2009). The Power of Negative Thinking: Cynicism and the History of Modern American Literature. University of Virginia Press. p. 187. ISBN 9780813928203. Retrieved 2013-11-26.
  14. Elisa Neuvonen; Minna Rusanen; Alina Solomon; Tiia Ngandu; Tiina Laatikainen; Hilkka Soininen; Miia Kivipelto & Anna-Maija Tolppanen (2014). "Late-life cynical distrust, risk of incident dementia, and mortality in a population-based cohort". Neurology. American Academy of Neurology. doi:10.1212/WNL.0000000000000528.
  15. "Cynical? You may be hurting your brain health". Science Daily. 28 May 2014. Retrieved 14 July 2014.

Further reading

External links

Look up cynicism in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.
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