The Cynic's Conundrum

by Robin Hanson
September 19, 2005

What Is A Cynic? says:
An attitude of scornful or jaded negativity, especially a general distrust of the integrity or professed motives of others.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary says:
Capitious, Peevish ... contemptuously distrustful of human nature and motives ... based on or reflecting a belief that human conduct is motivated primarily by self-interest.
The Oxford English Dictionary says:
A person disposed to rail or find fault; now usually: One who shows a disposition to disbelieve in the sincerity or goodness of human motives and actions, and is wont to express this by sneers and sarcasms; a sneering fault-finder.
Cynics thus combine cynical beliefs with a cynical mood.

Cynical beliefs are either that people have relatively "low" motives, or that people are hypocritical about their motives. (Even when "high" motives dominate conscious thoughts, the cynic can claim that low motives better explain overall behavior patterns.) Similarly a cynical belief about a social institution is that while it may claim to serve high functions, it actually serves low functions.

A cynical mood is rude, unhappy, and complaining, presumably about low motives and functions. Cynicism is contrasted with idealism, a good-natured emphasis on sincere high motives and functions.

Cynical Beliefs

Cynics might believe, for example, that politicians care more about power than about the public interest, or that voters care more about self-flattery and people like them than the public interest. Cynical beliefs about dating say that men care more about sex and women care more about landing a rich husband than they admit, and cynical beliefs about salesman say that they care more about profit than about helping you find the right product for you.

Cynics might also say that advertising is more about self-image and status than about learning product features, that religion is more about social bonding than about the supernatural or helping the world, that marriage is more about reliable access to quality sex, money, and housework than about romantic love, or that medicine is more about status and showing that you care than about improving health. A cynical view on the world of ideas is that conversation is more about talking than about listening, that higher education is more about signaling ability than about learning and appreciation, and that academia is more about helping students and donors affiliate with impressive people than about discovering truth or inventing improvements.

Interpreted as extreme claims, such as that people only care about low motives, or that high functions have no influence on social institutions, cynicism is clearly false. But interpreted in a more graded fashion, such as the fraction of behavior explained by low motives or functions, or the difference between claimed motives and real motives, cynical beliefs seem to contain a lot of truth.

Cynical Moods

The scornful sneering contemptuous cynical mood is not particularly attractive. So why does anyone ever adopt it? And why is such a mood associated with the cynical belief that hypocrisy and low motives are widespread?

Let us first notice some patterns about cynical moods. The young tend to be more idealistic, while the old are more cynical. People can remain idealistic their entire lives about social institutions that they know little about, but those who know an institution well tend to be more cynical. Leaders and the successful in an area tend to be less cynical than underlings and failures in that area. Things said in public tend to be less cynical than things said in private. People prefer the young to be idealistic, and discourage the teaching cynicism to the young. Cynicism is not considered an attractive feature.

Now how can we explain cynical moods? I can see two main explanations, one idealistic and one cynical, varying in the motives and abilities they posit for the cynic.

The idealistic explanation of cynical moods is that the cynic has unusually high motives or insight. He is better able to see behind false appearances, and he is more shocked and disapointed to discover the low motives of others. Because he is unwilling to be hypocritical, he is less popular and so he succeeds and leads less. Most people dislike cynics because cynics expose most people's hypocrisy.

The cynical explanation of cynical moods is that the cynic has unusually low motives or ability. He can better see low motives because he has them in spades, and the cynic complains to belittle the success of others. That is, if he cannot win in some area then the cynic will complain that the game is unfair, or that those who succeed are not really very praiseworthy. Most people dislike cynics because cynics are losers.

The Conundrum

The cynic's conundrum is that while a cynic might prefer that others believe an idealistic theory of his cynical mood, his own cynical beliefs should lead him to believe a cynical theory of his cynical mood. That is, cynics should think that rude complainers tend to be losers, rather than altruists.

Furthermore, the meta-cynical theory, that cynics tend to be losers, seems to better explain the patterns that cynics are rude, and that people don't like to be around cynics or having their children trained in cynicism. If idealism correlates with more attractive features, then people and institutions would naturally try to appear more idealistic.

Of course both the idealistic and the cynical theory of cynical moods seem to accept the claim that cynical beliefs contain a lot of truth. This fact, and the fact that more informed people tend to be more cynical, tends to favor cynical beliefs in general, and thus the cynical theory of cynicism in particular. Thus while hypocrisy and low motives probably may well be much more widespread than most people acknowledge, people who want to be liked may well be well-advised to pretend that they believe otherwise.

For their comments on this topic, I thank Jason Briggeman, Bryan Caplan, Tyler Cowen, Hal Finney, Mike Heumer, Dan Klein, Alex Tabarrok, and Dylan (last name unknown).