Are You a Social Cynic?

Giving others the benefit of the doubt enhances your happiness.

Posted May 17, 2011

Imagine that, as you are driving on the highway, a driver from another lane abruptly cuts into your lane, forcing you to brake.

Which of the following causes is the most likely explanation for the driver's behavior?

1. The driver is a rude person
2. The driver must be in a hurry
3. The driver must not have noticed you

Now imagine an alternative scenario: as you are driving on the highway and wish to change lanes, a driver in another lane brakes to allow you to enter his lane ahead of himself.

Which of the following causes is the most likely explanation for the driver's behavior?

1. The driver is a nice person
2. The driver is letting you in so that he can get into your lane
3. The driver must have noticed that you were in a hurry

I asked 40 Texan drivers to respond to these questions. 73% picked "the driver is a rude person," as an explanation in the 1st scenario, and 63% picked "the driver is a nice person" in the 2nd scenario. Thus, across both scenarios, a majority of respondents attributed the driver's behavior to stable personality traits (the driver is a rude/nice person), as opposed to situational forces (the driver must have been in a hurry/the driver must have noticed that you were in a hurry).

The tendency to attribute other people's behaviors to stable personality traits, rather than to situation forces, is quite common, and is referred to in psychology as the fundamental attribution error. Thus, when someone does not return your smile, you assume that he is rude, rather than that he is preoccupied or that he did not see your smile. Likewise, when someone smiles at you, you assume that he must be friendly, rather than that he must have just won the lottery.

What results from this study reveal additionally, however, is that the fundamental attribution error is more pronounced for negative rather than positive behaviors: people more readily attribute others' negative (versus positive) behaviors to personality traits. I verified this tendency across four other scenarios as well. 

In other words, people are social cynics: we generally do not give others the benefit of the doubt.

Why are we so cynical of others?

Perhaps the most important reason is that being cynical enhances our chances of survival. In a dog-eat-dog world, a world in which every person is looking out for his or her own interests, it makes sense to be cynical of others. In such a world, a person who implicitly distrusts others and is thus constantly on guard will likely survive longer than one who implicitly trusts others and gives them the benefit of the doubt.

However, what if you don't have to worry about survival-e.g., what if your basic needs are taken care of? Would it make sense to be cynical even in such circumstances?

No, not if you were interested in maximizing your well-being and happiness. There are at least three reasons why social cynicism erodes well-being and happiness. The first reason is a relatively obvious one: when you are cynical, you tend to worry a lot more than you would if you were not cynical, and the constant worrying releases cortisol, a stress hormone that is very damaging for emotional well-being, as work by Sopolsky and others has shown.

Second, a cynical person will tend to behave in a way that vitiates the environment around him, thus generating more negativity. For example, if you believe that the driver in scenario 1 is a rude person-as opposed to feeling that he was in a hurry or that he didn't notice you-you would likely feel angry. The anger will, in turn, make you feel revengeful towards him; e.g., you may be motivated to look for opportunities to cut into his lane. The situation can quickly escalate into making everyone more miserable. Even if you somehow controlled your impulse to take revenge, findings show that the residual anger that you feel will influence how you behave with other people, people totally unrelated to the incident that evoked the anger. Thus, for example, you may take out your anger on your innocent spouse, child, or friend, generating unpleasantness with them.

And finally, when you are cynical, you tend to attract others who are also cynical. This is because of a phenomenon known as homophily: people tend to flock to those who are of a similar mental make-up. Even if you were lucky enough to have the opportunity to befriend a less cynical person, she would have little incentive to maintain friendship with you since she would find your company to be unpleasant. Thus, a cynical person will sooner or later have no choice but to hang out with other cynical people. This eventually geneates a vicious cycle: because our attitudes and opinions are largely shaped by those with whom we associate, hanging out with cynical people reinforces our cynicism, making us even more steadfast in our cynicism.

How does one break the cycle of cynicism?

Breaking any habit starts with the realization that one has a problem. Breaking the habit of cynicism can be particularly difficult, since most people don't even realize that they are cynical. So, the place to start is to assess whether you are more cynical than you should be.

How would you know this?

I think there are two warning signs. First, do your closest friends and family think that you are more negative than you should be, especially when interpreting not just someone else's but even their behaviors? It can sometimes be difficult to figure out what your friends and family think of you, but one way is to notice what they say to you when you are having an argument: are you routinely accused by your friends and family as someone who is overly negative?

Of course, you can only find this out if you are sufficiently close to your friends and family, which leads me to the second warning sign: Do you have at least one close person who you can totally trust? That is, do you have at least one deep and meaningful relationship? If you don't, you may have a problem trusting others, which, in turn, probably stems from being overly cynical of others. Findings show that the one absolutely essential factor for being happy is having at least one deep and meaningful relationship.

Even if neither of these warning signs applies to you, you may be more cynical than you should be-from the perspective of maximizing your happiness. One way to find out if this is indeed the case is to do some self-experimentation: the next time you find yourself being cut off from your lane as you are driving (or something similar happens), notice the nature of your spontaneous interpretations: are they negative or positive? That will give you a clue as to whether you have scope to become less cynical.

What prevents us from living in such a world?

It seems that we need a critical mass of volunteers to jump start the virtuous cycle of positivity-volunteers who, despite being occasionally taken advantage of, will continue to give others as much benefit of the doubt as is realistically possible.

Do you feel that you could be such a volunteer?

Interested in these topics? Go to Sapient Nature.