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The Myth of the Cynical Genius

Why do so many people believe that cynicism is a sign of intelligence?

Key points

  • Cynicism is the belief that most people are selfish and cannot be trusted.
  • People widely believe that cynicism is a sign of intelligence and cognitive ability, but this belief is usually wrong.
  • Research has shown that cynicism is more likely to be negatively associated with intelligence.

Are intelligent people more likely to hold negative views of human nature? Fictional characters, like Sherlock Holmes, Dr. House, and Frank Underwood (not to mention half of the principal cast of Game of Thrones) have popularized the idea of the cynical genius. The cynical genius is someone who is hyper-intelligent and, through this intelligence, has come to understand that most people in the world are selfish, deceitful, and willing to do whatever it takes to get ahead. The character type is based on the belief that trusting others is naïve and foolish, and that cynicism is a sign of intelligence and sophistication. But is this belief based in reality? Is cynicism actually a sign of competence?

Research suggests that although people believe that cynicism and intelligence go hand-in-hand, there’s little or no scientific support for it (Stavrova & Ehlebracht, 2019). First, cynics are not actually more intelligent; if anything, people who are trusting in others are often smarter and more competent than those who are cynical about human nature.

Expectations vs. Reality

Stavrova and Ehlebracht (2019) conducted a series of studies to investigate people’s beliefs about the abilities of cynical (vs. non-cynical) individuals. They found that people believe cynics are better at cognitive tasks (like solving problems or performing calculations), but worse at social tasks (particularly, tasks that involved taking care of others). In other words, they found that most people believe in the idea of the cynical genius. When we see someone who doesn’t trust others, we assume that person is smart, if not especially kind.

Next, the researchers asked whether these beliefs were supported by reality. In other words, are cynical individuals actually more intelligent? If anything, the opposite was true. In general, cynicism was negatively associated with intelligence and cognitive ability. Interestingly, the relationship between cynicism and intelligence did depend somewhat on cultural differences. In more corrupt societies, there was less of a negative correlation between cynicism and competence. But even then, there was never convincing evidence for a positive correlation between intelligence and cynicism. In related work, Stavrova and Ehlebracht (2018) found that gaining more education, over time, reduces cynicism.

Never Underestimate a Cynic

Why do people hold the (mistaken) belief that cynicism is a sign of intelligence?

It could be based, in part, on characters from popular culture. Alternatively, it could be an example of a compensation effect (Kervyn et al., 2010). When we learn that someone scores well on one trait, sometimes we tend to assume that they are lacking in some other area. So if someone comes off as cynical and cold, we might assume that they make up for this in some other way (by being intelligent, or good at making rare medical diagnoses).

Another explanation is that it’s dangerous to underestimate a cynic. Someone with cynical beliefs is more likely to lie, cheat, and steal to accomplish their goals. So, if you are dealing with a cynic, it might be a good idea to assume that they are smart and capable. We assume that cynical individuals are smart because it would be very risky to underestimate their abilities.

Trust Is a Sign of Intelligence

Research suggests that trust, rather than cynicism, is a sign of intelligence. There tends to be a positive relationship between trust in people and cognitive ability (Sturgis et al., 2010). Arguably, this relationship exists because cynical people stop learning about the world and close themselves off to new ideas and opportunities. To quote Stephen Colbert: “Cynicism masquerades as wisdom, but it is the farthest thing from it. Because cynics don’t learn anything. Because cynicism is a self-imposed blindness, a rejection of the world because we are afraid it will hurt us or disappoint us.”

The irony of Stavrova and Ehlebracht’s research is that although trusting in others is the smart thing to do, it might not always pay off to seem like a trusting person. Most people inaccurately believe that cynics are smarter than those who trust in others.

This means that perhaps you should trust in people, but not let them know how much you trust them.

References

Kervyn, N., Yzerbyt, V., & Judd, C. M. (2010). Compensation between warmth and competence: Antecedents and consequences of a negative relation between the two fundamental dimensions of social perception. European Review of Social Psychology, 21(1), 155-187.

Stavrova, O., & Ehlebracht, D. (2018). Education as an antidote to cynicism: A longitudinal investigation. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 9(1), 59-69.

Stavrova, O., & Ehlebracht, D. (2019). The cynical genius illusion: Exploring and debunking lay beliefs about cynicism and competence. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 45(2), 254-269.

Sturgis, P., Read, S., & Allum, N. (2010). Does intelligence foster generalized trust? An empirical test using the UK birth cohort studies. Intelligence, 38(1), 45-54.

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