What causes cynicism? Should we be cynical?

Robin Hanson writes,

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 teaching cynicism to the young. Cynicism is not considered an attractive feature.
Today I noticed that my cynicism about a field (basketball, the Ivy League, government, my love life) tends to follow failure in that area. I also tend to be idealistic in areas where I've had success (the classroom - "Anyone can succeed with hard work!"). The Robert Day program provides a great example - contrast the opinions of the students who were rejected with those who got in.

Of course a rational person would have just the right amounts of cynicism and idealism, regardless of their success or failure in the given field (or, perhaps a rational person avoids such feelings). This is troublesome; is it correct to be more cynical about some institutions than others? Should our cynicism be in direct proportion to the difficulty of success?

There are two equilibria - the people who fail become cynical about their experience, which helps them cope, and the people who succeed are idealistic, because we want to believe the best in others and they're successful anyway so they can say whatever they want.

I guess the takeaway is to hold a cynical opinion weakly. I try to avoid pessimistic people, and believe that I can succeed in any new area if I'm willing to work harder than others. As Richard Bach wrote, "He who argues for his limitations gets to keep them."

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One thought on “What causes cynicism? Should we be cynical?

  1. Pingback: Advice for Mr. Prufrock – Kevin Burke

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