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How Anxiety Leads to Cynicism Leads to Kids Making Bad Decisions

New research debunks the myth of the cynical genius and suggests there's a better way for parents.

During a 2006 commencement speech at Knox College, Stephen Colbert made a highly trenchant point that many of the attendees probably dismissed as bullshit. “Cynicism masquerades as wisdom,” he said, “but it is the furthest thing from it.” Social science suggests this is a true statement that can be defended with data. Even so, research also shows that most people believe being cynical is positively correlated with being smart. Cynicism is, in short, not only a potential sign of intellectual laziness, but a trap that snags many people, particularly parents.

“Laypeople tend to endorse the ‘cynical genius’ belief — that is … that cynical individuals would do better on a variety of cognitive tasks and cognitive ability tests than their less cynical counterparts,” researchers Olga Stavrova and Daniel Ehlebracht wrote in “The Cynical Genius Illusion,” a study published by the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin in 2018. “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.”

In other words, cynical people are not necessarily stupid, but stupid people might embrace cynicism as a coping mechanism. Stavrova and Ehlebracht arrived at this conclusion after surveying more than 700 men and women about their views on cynicism and intelligence in four separate experiments. They found a significant association between cynicism and perceived intelligence in cross-cultural experiments. Then, to determine if cynics were actually any smarter, the duo analyzed additional data from the National Educational Panel Study, German Socio-Economic Panel, and the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies’ Survey of Adult Skills, which tracked cynical views and cognitive performance, and included about 200,000 people across 30 different countries. They determined that cynicism was negatively correlated with several measures of competence including educational attainment, academic competency, and cognitive ability.

Not only that, cognitive ability in adolescence predicted less cynicism for up to seven years into adulthood. The notably negative association between competence and cynicism was seen in all 30 countries.

It’s worth noting here that cynicism is not, in and of itself, stupid. It’s very possible to be cynical and intelligent. The specific issue seems to be that many people who adopt a cynical worldview struggle to move on from it. Their knee-jerk reactions to new information cease to be in step with reality, and their decision-making becomes poor on account of this twisted worldview. In this way, cynicism threatens to make some people less competent while not affecting others much at all.

“Importantly, these cross-cultural results showed that high-competence individuals were better able to adjust their level of cynicism depending on their sociocultural environment,” the researchers explained. 

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Though cynicism studies have not looked at parenting specifically, psychotherapist Janika Joyner (who was not involved in the study) warns that data and anecdotal evidence suggests that cynical parents tend to raise risk-averse children who struggle with self-esteem. 

“A parent who is cynical may teach their children to be afraid of trying new things out of fear of what could happen,” Joyner warns. “They may also contribute to their child having low self-esteem as their inner critic may become overpowering.”

Kids learn behaviors modeled by their parents and when parents routinely model cynical thinking, kids pick it up at speed. This is dangerous because it inculcates the very habits known to lead to flawed judgment in ineffectual adults. And this is particularly dangerous because the transfer of cynical thinking can happen between a highly competent parent and a child less likely to be capable of pivoting from negative thoughts.

Exacerbating the problem is the difficulty of parenthood, particularly in America, where parents receive very little community or financial support. American parents are likely to be cynical because American parents are likely to be anxious (and have every reason to be). Cynicism is a cognitive distortion rooted in depression and anxiety. As such, and because it perpetuates those issues, it’s extremely important that parents who wish to raise effective kids examine their darkest thinking or just keep it to themselves — and also that they don’t insinuate that cynical thinking is smart thinking.

There is a difference between skepticism, which can be taught directly, and cynicism, which is more likely to be modeled. Smart parents raising smart kids need to focus on the former and dispense with the latter.