Cynical Hostility Can Take a Heavy Toll on the Heart

If cynicism triggers chronic fight-or-flight responses, it can strain the heart.

Posted Nov 17, 2020

Source: Clker-Free-Vector-Images/Pixabay

Any way you slice it, hostility is toxic. Although every component of hostility can take a toll on our psychological and physical well-being, new research suggests that chronic "cognitive hostility" (i.e., cynicism) puts more strain on the cardiovascular system than the "emotional" and "behavioral" components of hostility. These research findings (Tyra et al., 2020) were recently published in the journal Psychophysiology.

This study aimed to examine the relationship between the three main components of hostility (behavioral, cognitive, and emotional) and cardiovascular reactivity in response to repeated exposure to acute stress

This study's first author Alexandra Tyra is a doctoral candidate in psychology and neuroscience at Baylor University. Senior author Annie Ginty is an assistant professor of psychology and neuroscience at BU and principal investigator at the Baylor Behavioral Medical Lab

As a foundation for their research, Tyra and colleagues utilized previously collected data from the Pittsburgh Cold Study 3 (PCS3), conducted from 2008-2011 by Carnegie Mellon University's Laboratory for the Study of Stress, Immunity, and Disease.

The PCS3 included two laboratory acute stress-reactivity and recovery sessions designed to evaluate psychological, cardiovascular (blood pressure, heart rate, HRV), and cortisol responses to a challenging laboratory task.

Each of the 169 study participants in the recent (2020) Baylor-led study visited the lab twice to perform Trier Social Stress Tests (TSST) consisting of a 20-minute baseline and a 15-minute psychological stress test. Lab sessions were spaced approximately seven weeks apart. Each participant's heart rate and systolic/diastolic blood pressure was monitored and recorded throughout the TSST evaluations; cardiovascular reactivity was calculated separately.

Participants also completed a modified 20-item version of the Cook‐Medley Hostility Scale, which measures the behavioral, cognitive, and emotional components of hostility.  

After controlling for confounding variables, the results suggest that greater cognitive hostility (i.e., cynicism) was associated with blunted cardiovascular reactivity during the first lab visit and a lack of habituation to repeated acute stress between lab visits.

"No significant relationships to cardiovascular reactivity or habituation were found for emotional (i.e., hostile affect) or behavioral (i.e., aggressive responding) components," the authors note. Based on these findings, Tyra et al. conclude: "Cynical hostility is a potential pathway to cardiovascular disease by preventing a healthy response to stress over time."

"This does not imply that emotional and behavioral hostility are not bad for you, just that they may affect your health or well-being in other ways," Tyra emphasized in a Nov. 16 news release. "The increased risk of [cynical] hostility is likely due to heightened physiological arousal to psychological stress, which can strain the cardiovascular system over time."

"Cynical hostility is more cognitive, consisting of negative beliefs, thoughts, and attitudes about other people's motives, intentions, and trustworthiness," she added. "It can be considered suspiciousness, lack of trust, or cynical beliefs about others."

"These findings reveal that a greater tendency to engage in cynical hostility—which appears to be extremely relevant in today's political and health climate—can be harmful not only for our short-term stress responses but also our long-term health," Tyra concluded. 

In addition to the psychological backlash of cynicism, the latest research suggests that cynical hostility can put excessive strain on the cardiovascular system and may take a toll on our hearts over time.


Alexandra T. Tyra Ryan C. Brindle Brian M. Hughes Annie T. Ginty. "Cynical Hostility Relates to a Lack of Habituation of the Cardiovascular Response to Repeated Acute Stress." Psychophysiology (First published: September 13, 2020) DOI: 10.1111/psyp.13681