The Incompetence of Cynics – A Study

A review of my book on artificial intelligence, When Monkeys Teach Monkeys, indirectly blamed me as naïve. The reviewer said:

I’ve found few arguments in favor of AI, but maybe that’s because I don’t want to downplay the dangers.

In my presentations on technology trends, which I view from a rather techno-optimistic perspective, I repeatedly encounter listeners who focus on the dangers and risks and portray my optimistic view as naïve. They often think they are quite clever, because they have discovered the problems inherent in the new stuff. But it is much easier to recognize problems than to imagine opportunities and possibilities. That’s why I’ve always found the role of the critics to be somewhat naïve and lazy thinking. Some of them like to to portray themself as smart critics, even taking on the role of moral entrepreneurs who use it to get attention and occasionally make a living out of it. But they often present a rather cynical view of the world.

If the original meaning of Diogenes cynicism was something that pursued, among other things, the needlessness and a certain skepticism, today it is seen more as an attitude, a way of thinking and acting, often characterized by biting ridicule. Cynics often support their comments with catchy buzzwords and repetition of audience fears, such as those about jobs, threats to youth or society, and why we’d all be better off without the new stuff.

In the process, these cynics and moral entrepreneurs give the appearance of competence and expertise, and if they can also present their arguments eloquently and in a TV-friendly manner, then all the better. But are they really more intelligent and competent? Researchers at Tilburg University in the Netherlands asked the same question.

In the study The Cynical Genius Illusion: Exploring and Debunking Lay Beliefs About Cynicism and Competence the authors use data from seven individual studies they conducted to examine how cynics are viewed and how they perform on various tasks. To do this, the subjects (the “lay people”) were given a list of tasks to redistribute to a group of other subjects who had been divided into cynical and less cynical according to a personality test. The cynics had agreed to questions such as “Most of the time, people are looking out for themselves.” The lay people knew who were the cynics and who were not before the task distribution.

In a worldwide survey of 200,000 people, they rated the competence and expertise of cynics higher. The lay people expected cynics to be better at solving the tasks.

So how did the cynics perform in solving the tasks compared to the non-cynics? The results were sobering: cynics turned out to be more incompetent and dumber. Cynicism with a standard deviation of 1 corresponded to a standard deviation between 0.17 and 0.25 toward less competence.

Cynics showed themselves to be

  • less educated in 29 out of 30 countries;
  • less literate in 28 out of 30 countries;
  • less proficient in numeracy in 29 out of 30 countries;
  • less proficient in computer skills in 23 out of 26 countries.

Their worldview does not allow for an honest examination of other opinions and facts. That is why cynics learn less, they lock themselves into their own worldview.

Another study from the University of Edinburgh confirmed this finding back in 2017. Cognitive abilities are negatively related to pessimism and weakly or slightly positively related to optimism.

American comedian and late-night host Stephen Colbert summed up the danger of cynicism to people’s happiness and future in these words:

Remember, you cannot be both young and wise. Young people who pretend to be wise to the ways of the world are mostly just cynics. Cynicism masquerades as wisdom, but it is the farthest thing from it. Because cynics don’t learn anything. Because cynicism is a self-imposed blindness, a rejection of the world because we are afraid it will hurt us or disappoint us. Cynics always say no. But saying “yes” begins things. Saying “yes” is how things grow. Saying “yes” leads to knowledge. “Yes” is for young people. So for as long as you have the strength to, say “yes’.

We seem to encounter cynicism and negativism all the time. The question is, where do they come from? From negative life experiences? From a mindset that comes from upbringing or perhaps societal influences? Does it come from a sense of one’s own superiority?

If more people were more aware of the results of these studies, then perhaps we would make more of an effort to look to the future more positively, more optimistically and with less cynicism, and perhaps tackle new tasks without despairing in advance. There would then be no room for Future Angst. Except in book fear on the bookshelf!

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