The vicious cycle of disrespect and cynicism

We tested how cynicism emerges and what maintains it. Cynicism is the tendency to believe that people are morally bankrupt and behave treacherously to maximize self-interest. Drawing on literatures on norms of respectful treatment, we proposed that being the target of disrespect gives rise to cynical views, which predisposes people to further disrespect. The end result is a vicious cycle: cynicism and disrespect fuel one another. Study 1’s nationally representative survey showed that disrespect and cynicism are positively related to each other in 28 of 29 countries studied, and that cynicism’s associations with disrespect were independent of (and stronger than) associations with lacking social support. Study 2 used a nationally representative longitudinal dataset, spanning 4 years. In line with the vicious cycle hypothesis, feeling disrespected and holding cynical views gave rise to each other over time. Five preregistered experiments (including 2 in the online supplemental materials) provided causal evidence. Study 3 showed that bringing to mind previous experiences of being disrespected heightened cynical beliefs subsequently. Studies 4 and 5 showed that to the extent that people endorsed cynical beliefs, others were inclined to treat them disrespectfully. Study 6’s weeklong daily diary study replicated the vicious cycle pattern. Everyday experiences of disrespect elevated cynical beliefs and vice versa. Moreover, cynical individuals tended to treat others with disrespect, which in turn predicted more disrespectful treatment by others. In short, experiencing disrespect gives rise to cynicism and cynicism elicits disrespect from others, thereby reinforcing the worldview that caused these negative reactions in the first place.

That is from a new paper by Olga Stavrova, Daniel Ehlebracht, and Kathleen D. Vohs.  Perhaps this is further microfoundations for the hypotheses of Martin Gurri?

Via the excellent Kevin Lewis.


Prof. Vohs was one of the authors of the famous 2003 review that definitively debunked the self-esteem myth. Unfortunately self-esteem is one of those myths that won't go away (probably for one reason, it's too easy to research, given the availability and handiness of the RSES). A psychologist (personality & social psych.), Prof. Vohs works (or did) in a business department, hence may be a bit more grounded in reality than some social psychologists.
I haven't read the cynical article yet, but will, and it sounds plausible (but not exactly surprising, as is often, but not always, the case with social psychology).

So if people are horrible to you, you tend to think people are horrible. Makes sense. But this is not an inescapable vicious circle, intelligent people realize that some people are toxic and take steps to move themselves and their families away from them. Unfortunately, in countries with very authoritarian governments, this can be difficult, hence the lack of trust in many of the former Soviet Union countries, although that is now changing.

I wonder how well this disrespect-cynicism cycle maps to the notion of societies being "high trust" vs "low trust".

And with regard to former Soviet Union countries, one of the vivid anecdotes that I've read said that when the Russian version of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" became popular, when a contestant chose the "ask the audience" lifeline, the audience would often deliberately choose wrong answers to mislead the contestant.

Which strikes me as also being along the same lines as these various social measures, but perhaps not the same thing as cynicism.

I wonder how well this disrespect-cynicism cycle maps to the notion of societies being "high trust" vs "low trust".

It certainly suggests that there are two equilibria.

"The end result is the electoral cycle: cynicism and disrespect fuel politics which causes politicians to think less of their fellow civilians, and think only they should serve, and therefore they must run for re-election"

also, we're narcissistic!

"Cynicism is the tendency to believe that people are morally bankrupt and behave treacherously to maximize self-interest. "

Our system is based on people acting out of self-interest often amorally. Cynicism as defined above is completely rational.

Bullshit. Our system is based on people acting out of self interest within a system of rules. Like football players trying to block and tackle each other, but not hurt each other.

Football players absolutely are trying to hurt their opponents.

And you know this how?

One story from three years ago? There are crimes committed each day but that doesn't change the fact that I can walk down the street and be 99.9999% sure nothing will happen to me.

Players who do seem to want to hurt people are not respected, are fined, and if they don't learn, eventually are suspended out of the game. See e.g., Vontaze Burfict.

Our system is supposed to be based on something called "enlightened self-interest," and the recognition that social and political norms protect us much more than momentary advantage.

It will always matter more in 10 or 20 years if courts are fair arbiters than if you got a tax cut.

Did something happen to the courts? Or is this just more mass hysteria...

I recall with laughter when the Jade Helm nutjobs were convinced Obama was going to invade Texas.

You partisans, absurd to the end. The Dow is at 29,340.

Huh? I just made a general statement, provided a concept of civics.

You start taking about hysteria, and Obama, and call me partisan?

Sounds like playground stuff.

Cynicism grows with can only see and hear so much duplicity deception balderdash and outright lies before you stop believing in fairy tales...this world has tried every 'ism that can be conceived all of them have failed one way or another...capitalism has failed the least..there is no perfect system...the only thing that doesn't change is human nature in many ways today is no different from biblical times..there are good people in this world but if you're not at least sceptical by the time you hit 60 there's something wrong in your head

This is how snowflake youth become wizened, old cranks like me.

Or being drafted and then serving in Vietnam - remember when you too were a precious snowflake, Dick? One hopes it did not take decades for you to grow cynical in response. David Drake, to give an example, seems to have needed only a few weeks in country.

"Disrespect" should more precisely be identified as "susceptibility" or "sensitivity to disrespect" (the degree to which one feels personally disrespected, aggrieved by an offense). This coefficient varies widely among countries . I suspect that it is rather low in the U.S. and higher in France where I live (partly explains the current turmoil in France)

Good point. As for countries, it probably depends a lot on the specific American you are talking about. I've heard a good saying once about America that we can never agree on what mutual respect means because some people think respect means "treats me like a person" and others think respect means "treats me like an authority."

Why should I trust the authors?

It’s not even February. This is the comment of the year!

How can I know you are not being self-serving in your evaluation?

Thank social media. Trump, the social media president, is expert in the use of disrespect, which he uses to (1) identify those he disrespects so that he and his followers establish and maintain a common cause, (2) promote hostility toward Trump's political and policy adversaries, and (3) create cynicism among his followers toward the norms and customs that unite a nation. Trump isn't the first American politician to use the technique for personal political gain. One will recall Joseph McCarthy. His mistake was to attack the U.S. Army, which even his followers thought beyond the pale. Will Trump make a similar mistake? I suppose it depends on how desperate he becomes.

Trump's core bases have been disrespected for quite some time. Evangelicals make up about a quarter of the US population, yet I cannot think of the last movie I saw that had a positive portrayal of a clear evangelical character. I can easily rattle off Muslims, Buddhists, Jews, Atheists, Hindus, and with some work could even start getting down into the rare religions. Nor is it like the media puts even the most trivial effort into understanding the Evangelical worldview; famously the New York Times managed to publish an article about Easter and get the principle details wrong even after multiple rounds of editing.

Or consider their beliefs. The media treats basically every pro-life self-description as something advocating for chattel slavery of women. It is routinely portrayed that pro-lifers have no interest in children once they are born yet the vast majority of adoptions are undertaken by pro-lifers (and even higher percentages of special needs adoptions). Pro-life organization feed millions of people, provide shelter beds, and offer a wide array of support services. And even beyond their own institutions, pro-lifers are much more likely to donate to uninvolved charitable institutions than their pro-choice counterparts. Yet none of this is part of the stock pro-life depiction.

And on it goes. We get the routine lecture about not eating meat or about the need to end energy jobs by people who use private jets for their vacations. We hear that supporting lower taxation is evil, yet the moment taxes were raised on the wealthy in blue states, suddenly all bets are off. We are told that getting health insurance for everyone is vital, but somehow that is less important than ensuring that everyone has birth control.

A large portion of the country has been treated as though they are "deplorable". Even those they have elected have routinely not furthered their primary causes while moving heaven and earth to enact policies not terribly well supported by the rank and file.

Cynicism has been growing for decades before Trump. When people cannot find a reputable leader to finally enact their goals and support their identity, they will eventually turn to disreputable ones.

So what do we do with young earth creationists? Do we attempt to give them equal respect so that they won't develop hard feelings?

Anti-vax as well?

"Cynicism is the tendency to believe that people are morally bankrupt and behave treacherously to maximize self-interest. "

By this definition, Christians are already cynical, no disrespect or hard feelings phase needed. Sure seems angry that political Christianity isn't stronger so he's coming to cynicism at an angle different from the doctrine of total depravity as espoused by many theologians.

I’m struggling to think of a movie that had a positive portrayal of a clear Muslim, Buddhist, Jewish, Atheist, or Hindu character. Who did you have in mind? It seems that there are very few movies that focus on real-world religions in general.

Well for a start Malcolm X is a movie about a black Muslim as is Ali. The Kite Runner is almost entirely about Muslims. The Kingdom of Heaven portrayed Saladin quite well. If we branch out to television, Quantico had several seasons for Muslims

For Buddhists, well we can start well we can start with Kundun which is the story of the Dalai Lama. Then of course there is Seven Years in Tibet. And if that were not enough we have The Last Dalai Lama. If we want just supporting characters, well there is Kiss the Sky. On television you have Lisa Simpson and God from South Park on two of the most popular shows.

Jews? Basically everyone in Fiddler on the Roof. Grace of Will and Grace is Jewish. Batwoman had a Bat Mitvah. The Pianist and basically every other holocaust movie.

For Atheists we have Dr. Arroway from Contact, Logan in Prometheus, Brian in Family Guy, and Rick of Rick and Morty.

For Hindus, well we can start with Gandhi. Then there is Nemo in the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Cece from New Girl.

All of these are from populations that make up far less of the American population than Evangelicals.

You can argue that well the movies just don't do religion. But how exactly is that supposed to be less offensive when the movies do, at times gratuitously, other divisive topics like sexuality, immigration, or or racism. Or take it another way, when was the last time a character had socially conservative values and wasn't the villain?

Media operates in a bubble. Its portrayals of evangelicals are at best uninformed and far too often simply offensive. The inability to have complex characters who espouse any of the very typical beliefs of around 20% of the population without massive stereotyping about all their bad habits and practices is also quite telling.

So we’re talking either shows where the original source material written outside Hollywood or secondary characters in TV shows and relatively obscure movies. If we’re counting Lisa Simpson from the Simpsons here, then we should also count Ned Flanders from the Simpsons as a positive portrayal of an Evangelical Christian.

I must have missed the complete lack of original source material written outside Hollywood for Evangelical Christians. I suppose Hollywood also missed the boat about not writing about these things due to lack of source material with:

Saved!, Jesus Camp, Them That Follow, The Righteous Gemstones, V is for Vendetta, Religulus, Easy A, Carrie, At Play in the Fields of the Lord, etc.

I am not sure if it is the article I once read, but I think it is “I know y'all think I'm pretty square, but tuh, I believe what I believe”: Images of Evangelicals in American Film". Shockingly the scholarly literature does indeed show that somehow Hollywood is quite fine with negative portrayals of evangelicals, it just has trouble doing positive ones.

And less we forget if there is a dearth of evangelicals in the primary works, why exactly is that all that much better? To the best of my knowledge the X-Men have a huge sampling of world religions present, yet the only evangelicals Marvel ever saw fit to make explicitly thus were evil.

Sure Ned Flanders is a Christian, but he is played consistently as a comic foil. At best he is gentle mockery.

And that is my point when the default is unspoken religion, why exactly would we not expect a group to feel disrespected when the only time they are characterized is to make them the evil ones? Is this not exactly the sort of thing people said disrespected lesbians and gays back in previous decades?

For a quarter of the American population, the characters who self-identify with them are pretty much universally evil. That takes either staggering levels of incompetence or some degree of disrespect.

All your movie picks are old, I thought you were referring to recent ones. If we can go through the old catalog, then there are plenty of pro-Christian movies like "The Ten Commandments", "The Passion of the Christ", "The Chronicles of Narnia", etc. In fact there are more good Christian movies than the other religions you listed. If you are offended by Ned Flanders as a Christian, how do you think Hindus feel about Apu?

Funny, Righteous Gemstones is 2019. As is Those that Follow.

Passion of the Christ was explicitly not Hollywood and done outside of the studio system by Mel Brooks. It is also heavily Catholic in its take. When the studios have been done the passion stories we have gotten things like Last Temptation of Christ.

The Chronicles of Narnia is definitely Christian bait, but given its provenance is much more high church Anglican than Evangelical.

And there is nothing wrong with any of these movies. Some are silly, some are stupid, but any time any is recognizably evangelical character they are, at best, comic relief and far more often the villain.

Back in the 1950s, sure you had a strong pro-Christian and a weaker pro-Evangelical take in Hollywood. But the scholarly literature shows 1970 as the dividing point with evangelicals after that typified as "the hypocritical, the psychotic, the naive, and the insensitive" in the vast bulk of on-screen depictions.

Again this should not be that hard, who are the many supporting characters that audiences recognize as Evangelicals who are not comic relief or evil? I mean it is only a quarter of the American, Latin American, and African audiences (and 5 - 10% of the Chinese to boot) that identifies as Evangelical.

I am not offended by Flanders, what is offensive is that Flanders is the only example on hand. Nemo is a very different Hindu. Gandhi, of course is universally beloved and clearly treated with respect throughout.

I am not even that big of a cinephile, but it is trivial for me to think of positive depictions of other minority religions, yet some one where one of the largest audience demographics would say "That is a respectful characterization of us" is just a wee bit hard to come by.

...but I would much rather have seen The Passion Of The Christ if it had been made by Mel Brooks :-)

Sure. I'm Christian, though I don't identify as evangelical. Some evangelical Christians confuse self-pitying victimhood with martyrdom. Martyrs have a special place in Christianity: they go straight to heaven and don't have to wait until Jesus's return and the resurrection of the body. Self-pitying victims, on the other hand, are the opposite of martyrs - they will have to wait. Will self-pitying victims ascend to heaven on judgment day? I am partial to universal salvation, so even bigots ascend to heaven at the end of time. Unlike some evangelicals, I'm not a sectarian Christian; indeed, one who believes in universal salvation, as I do, could hardly condemn to eternal fire other Christians with beliefs different from mine. Victimhood, I should add, is hardly limited to evangelicals: we are all victims of something or somebody. Jews are history's victims, yet they are God's chosen. How can that be? Are Jews who don't accept Jesus as the Messiah eligible for universal salvation, or will they be condemned to eternal fire along with Muslims, Buddhists, Atheists, Hindus, Social Justice Warriors, and Elites?

By the way, on the pro-life thing, when the Marist Poll asked people to identity in June 2019, they split 35% pro-life and 57% pro-choice. So when "pro-life asks for respect" what are they really asking? To reverse the results? To win anyway?

I think it is a good working definition of "fundamentalism" in any religious tradition that you think your personal beliefs must trump all. As an agnostic I find that very dangerous, whether it is Christian fundamentalism, or Muslim fundamentalism, or Buddhist fundamentalism.

Yeah and the Marist poll before that was an even split. Why we might even see another move back to the 2012 level.

From the same poll we find that 55% of oppose abortion after 24-weeks of gestation. The number who believe life begins at birth (as enshrined in NY state law) is a whopping 16%. Even silly things like language somehow end up being highly anti-democratic, 72% are comfortable describing a third trimester pregnancy as an "unborn child", yet somehow the media never follows through.

Ultimately, your own poll shows that 70% of Americans support banning abortion outside of the first trimester excepting only cases of rape, incest, or saving the life of the mother.

Respect might be actually reflecting the will of the people. Or at least not tarring pro-lifers as whacky fundamentalists when their position is closer to the median voter than the abortion-on-demand position of NARAL or the DNC.

You just moved goalposts all over the place. Not useful.

You did not show that the evangelicals argue for a majority position.

Motte and bailey.


I only ever said that pro-lifers are cynical because they are invariably portrayed in disrespectful ways.

You then asked what they are asking for and decided that it was "winning anyway". Okay fine, we want a national abortion policy it should reflect the actual, nuanced, opinion of America as related in your own chosen poll. That means we ban everything in the third trimester and likely most of the second (though the data is not granular enough to say this for sure).

Or perhaps we opt for this whole federalism thing and let states enact, with supramajority support their own policies in this area.

Current abortion policy in New York and Georgia are both far from the median American voter. Yet in spite of New York's position being far further from the median, it is only Georgia's legislative efforts that are portrayed as crazy zealotry.

These sorts of imbalances are precisely the sort of disrespect that breeds cynicism. It is precisely the sort of thing that leads to people voting for disreputable leaders who promise to back their identity and policies.

Again, you sound angry that in a democracy a minority should have to accept majority rule.

I'm afraid this "respect" thing is just a stalking horse for the same demand.

"If you respected us, you'd do what we, the minority, demand."

Legal abortion past 24 weeks is the minority position.

If pro-lifers were respected advocating for restrictions at or near 24 weeks, particularly in jurisdictions where they have supermajorative support, should not be regarded as crazy.

"When people cannot find a reputable leader to finally enact their goals and support their identity, they will eventually turn to disreputable ones."

No, they probably just want to support those leaders. They have as much moral agency as the rest of mankind.

Right, that's how we have more people voting for Trump than approve of him.

It is no abdication of moral responsibility for people to say that they desire certain positions, be it on abortion or immigration, so much they are willing to vote for whomever they think will actually deliver.

After all, we are coming up on 50 years of the abortion debate. The pro-lifers have elected 4 presidents, 20 years of majority in the house and senate, and a majority of the governors and state legislatures. Exactly what incremental progress have they had? Particularly given that the median voter is for banning abortion after the first trimester, it is hard to see how the Republican party failed and refused to prioritize key issues of their voters.

If the definition of insanity is doing the same thing but expecting different results, when exactly should voters who have provided a huge fraction of a party's votes do something different? When should they cut a deal with someone unrespectable to get things done?

I didn't look at the paper (gated).

The abstract hinges on "self-interest."

What is "self-interest"?

See La Rochefoucauld quote in my paper here:

"Self-interest" is on my list of terms to avoid:

It's a concept critical to democracy.

What is good for me? Or should I generalize that (enlightened form) to what is good for family, my community, or even the world at large?

So does CNN’s increasingly successful efforts to make themselves a laughingstock have more impact on their own staff’s cynicism or that of their remaining viewers?

You have never worked with anyone behind the camera or in master control at a network, have you? In my experience, the most cynical worked in Va Beach for CBN, but Fox ran a fairly close second. CNN was a non-union shop, meaning that back in the 90s, they only attracted those who could not get a better paying job at a network/network affiliate.

Basically everyone working as staff at a network are only working there for a pay check, and would change their job in a heartbeat for higher pay. As for the talent you see on the screen, the cynicism regarding them is boundless among the people working as staff, and has nothing to do with any particular network.

I don't scroll CNN for internet news, but my husband does; he occasionally reads out to me, uh, novel Trump takes to shoehorn into whatever the day's news is, from whatever category or quarter of the world. Or, on a slow news day, an even more inventive take, such as last week when it was really bad and sad, CNN said, that "these civil rights leaders died" during the Trump administration.

Trump: his reach extending even unto making death worse than it otherwise would be.

Ostriches are funnier than CNN.

I dunno, with us ostriches there's just the one well-worn joke. CNN manages to riff, endlessly.

Though I met an exiled Rhodesian once who found a second vein of humor in ostriches. My parents had taken my kid and me to one of those exotic-game "ranches." (Picture a very badly-managed piece of land, bereft of grass or much of any vegetation save live oaks here and there, trimmed up in the African savanna fashion by the giraffes you could corn-feed.) He showed us a lady ostrich sitting on her nest; she'd been sitting there for months and months, not realizing her eggs were duds. He thought that was funny. I found it a little depressing. He showed us how to ride a ostrich a la Swiss Family Robinson. We declined. He then made doughnuts in the ranch vehicle while a camel gave dizzy chase with its mouth hanging open. He felt it had a Jurassic Park effect; it kind of did.

I think that was the last time I tried to have what is called fun.

I think there should be a balance. People are on average neither good nor evil, but are *self-interested*. If you show that you can create value for others, most people will work with you as such cooperation can be in people’s self-interest in the long run. On the other hand, most people aren’t going to help you out of the kindness of their hearts.

The upshot of this is that I think people should be naive in micro but cynical in macro. By naive in micro, I mean it is best to trust others in your typical daily situation where people are interacting for mutual benefit. I feel that I am already on the trusting side, yet have lost far more opportunities due to not trusting people than I have been taken advantage of due to trusting people. But people should be cynical in the macro sense in that their life direction should be guided by self-interest, at least until they are wealthy and secure enough and have satisfied their own desires. I’ve seen many people try to go into do-good professions and they are mostly unemployed/underemployed and depressed in their 30s now despite going to elite universities. It’s a waste of potential, and the result of putting too much faith in the system to reward virtue. Paradoxically, the people who stayed on one of the greedy capitalist tracks are now in a better position to do good having accumulated wealth they can use to either donate to others or live off of and do the do-goody work they want.

"Via the excellent Kevin Lewis." Every other Kevin Lewis must get awfully fed up with the implication that he is less than excellent.

Without necessarily contesting the cited claims of "disrespect" as source or chief source of cynical ideation and expression, I cite another source, viz., historical spells and brief periods of untethered idealism:

Idealism: the cheery midwife officiating at the births of Pessimism, Cynicism, and Nihilism.

My experience and my readings of history and literature tell me that the three weird sisters named above are born from frustrated idealism, a natural consequence of having hopes raised immodestly high, having them believed long enough to be confronted with intractable realities (and coming out on the losing end of many or most of those encounters), then seeing those raised hopes abandoned and deserted as untenable.

Then, too, cynicism could be deemed exactly a legitimate and sensible response to encounters with and observations of moral bankruptcy and treacherous leveraging of self-interest, phenomena which the authors seem otherwise not to account for.

After cynicism dined on yours truly some few lives ago, I was left not with cynicism or nihilism (or idealism) but with skepticism.

Re: " Cynicism is the tendency to believe that people are morally bankrupt and behave treacherously to maximize self-interest."

Isn't that the definition of the rational economic man?

People will have different views about what constitutes “disrespect.” Is being prevented from buying many drugs without a prescription being “disrespected”? Is being prevented from crossing a national border without a passport and, possibly, a visa being “disrespected”? Etc., etc. I often judge that I am being disrespected in circumstances where other, less libertarian, people might not share my judgment. But, introspecting, I do not believe that the associated feelings are making me cynical, though they do make me grumpy.

>"Cynicism is the tendency to believe that people are morally bankrupt and behave treacherously to maximize self-interest."

Weird. Anyone who points out that some planned Government program is obviously doomed is called "cynical." The only obstacle to Obamacare was "cynicism," I distinctly recall.

You guys should get your story straight.

It is probably reasonable to think that some government programs are unworkable, but a counterproductive cynicism to think that they all are, by definition.

Sometimes it's hard to be cynical enough.

New York and California are both getting a good look at "unworkable" programs; New York with their new catch-and-release no bail or jail law, California their AB5 no-contract-worker-left-employed law.

In both cases, the problems that are arising were widely predicted. The advocates don't care.

Really? *These* are the biggest problems in America right now??

My cynicism is confirmed.

This definition of cynicism seems too broad: "Cynicism is the tendency to believe that people are morally bankrupt and behave treacherously to maximize self-interest."
By that standard, would most Jews and Christians (that hold to original sin) not be categorized as cynics? And the economics profession, with it's utility maximizing homo-economicus, would be decimated.
Such a definition would sweep up a lot of people that might not consider themselves to be cynical at all. Maybe cynicism is like Justice Potter's pornography quip: "I can't define it, but I know it when I see it."

There's a shitload of difference between "maximizing utility" and "behaving treacherously". Any economist who thinks they are the same is an idiot. Any critic of economists who thinks they are the same is also an idiot.

Judging by the discussion on this post, MR commenters skew cynical.

Look, debate about the innate nature of man is useless. Utterly garbage metaphysical philosophical masturbation. We collectively choose our culture, and we can choose to be more pro-social. We can choose to respect individual choices, donate more tax revenue to the meek, and not flick off that moron who is driving too slow on the freeway. Restrict selfishness to the mere fact of capitalism (which is indeed the best system) and be “socialist” everywhere else. Life is short. Leave a good mark while you’re here.

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