FEATURE28 September 2009

What’s in it for me? Researchers study cynicism


A team at the London School of Economics has begun researching the social impact of cynicism – the tendency to believe that other people are motivated by self-interest. Research spoke to Charles Liasides and Alain Samson about their work.

Research: Why did you decide to study cynicism?

Charles Liasides: It was an entirely personal thing. I’m not a trained psychologist, I did marketing and have a background as an entrepreneur involved in software development, but personally I’ve felt for years that when I listened to what was being said by politicians and big corporations, the degree of hypocrisy was stunning. My family background is Greek-Cypriot and when Cyprus was invaded by Turkey in 1974 the hypocrisy of the politicians really came home to me. I thought it was a really important thing to look at. How do people respond to all these messages they’re being sent? Are they vigilant about it? Do they care? It was a personal interest to understand cynicism and what kind of behaviour it leads to.

Alain Samson: What we wanted to do was look further at that emotional response to cynicism. If people felt disengaged, what would it take for them to re-engage? If they were angry and frustrated, what would they do? Protest? Support single issue parties? Or go out and become terrorists? We want to look at how strong this propensity is and what it takes for people then to re-engage and change their view.

A lot of people might ask why we don’t just study trust or distrust, but the difference is that cynicism is really the core of trust. There’s greater fuzziness about the definition of trust, because it can also be about complexity, unpredictability… We think that cynicism should be seen as the interaction between certain beliefs or things that happen in everyday life, and the emotional responses to those.

Research: How can you measure cynicism?

AS: We’ve started to develop psychological scales based on multiple questions. We cover the consumer domain, the media, politics and general cynicism. What we would like to do is look at this in interaction with the emotional responses to cynicism, and there are different approaches that could be taken to that. You can think of it as a chain between beliefs, emotions and behaviours. We’re probably going to have to move more and more into experimental areas, for example it may be interesting to look at behavioural economics – which tries to understand the consumer better than traditional economics – instead of assuming we’re all rational.

CL: If we had a regular tracker, that would work really well. There’s quite a few things we could be doing, and we’re looking for partnering opportunities at the moment.

Research: What have recent events like the financial crisis and the MPs’ expenses scandal taught you about cynicism?

CL: It’s very interesting that people who had thought that the banks were safe and who’d been prudent and saved all their lives were suddenly faced with [the collapse of] the Icelandic banks and haven’t had access to their money for many months – if it hasn’t disappeared completely. So their beliefs about the order of society and authority have changed. With MPs’ expenses there were many, many people at grassroots saying, ‘We want rid of our MP, she’s been lying to us.’ It’s had a knock-on effect in local elections. The most dramatic effect that we saw was in the European elections. People stayed away in droves and ironically the far-right parties got in. So it can have quite an impact.

AS: We started working on this before [the financial crisis] all happened, so when there was a lot of cynicism about the financial world, it was a bit of a vindication for us flagging cynicism as an important issue.

Research: How can cynicism affect businesses and governments? Can they use it to their advantage?

CL: If we don’t shed light on these things the situation perpetuates itself. The more we understand it the better it might be, because people might change their behaviour, or at least if people know more about it they can be more vigilant, so I guess that’s a bit of altruism, if you like, because if we understand what’s going on, that benefits everyone.

For businesses it could be an advantage if they realise that people are a bit more vigilant and more cynical now, and take more trouble to be transparent and honest. But all too often you scratch below the surface and you find it’s just another layer of hypocrisy. You get so much greenwashing these days. The thing is, are people really that gullible? Is cynicism the opposite of gullibility? The less gullible people are, the better it probably is for society.

AS: I think it can be a motivator to take action that is constructive, or it can be a motivator, if you have an unhealthy levels of cynicism, to take action that is more about withdrawing, like not voting any more or not paying taxes any more because you think the government is corrupt. If people become so cynical that they disengage, then clearly that’s bad for society. If, however, they become more vigilant and read papers, write to MPs and so on then that’s good for society. So it has good and bad effects. Among consumers, it ranges from word-of-mouth, which can be very constructive, to boycotting businesses.

For more on the issue of trust, see Phyllis Macfarlane’s article from the September issue of Research.