The other day, my daughter showed me a video of a young girl performing a song on America’s Got Talent. For those who’ve never seen the show, the judges interview the competitors after their performances. Simon Cowell (one of the judges) asked the girl how she had chosen her song, and she revealed that her father — who has stage 4 colon cancer — loves to hear her sing it. After watching the video, I noticed that a number of the comments cynically challenged the veracity of her story, claiming that she and her parents tears were “fake,”or that she lied about her hometown life, etc.
The cynicism of people publicly claiming to know details which they could not possibly confirm about a complete stranger strikes me as odd, and even cold-hearted. Why are people who truly know nothing about a young girl dismissing her story? Sadly, parents do get cancer, and their children do dedicate songs to them. So, why the cynical responses?
It’s certainly not the first time I’ve witnessed cynicism in the public sphere, and lately I’ve started to wonder where it comes from and if the lizard brain (and its particular need to be right), is somehow involved.
Each of us has an evolutionary primitive part of the brain which is often referred to as our lizard brain. This part of our brain, which focuses on survival, has four needs: familiarity, habits, control, and being right. (Watch a short video introduction to the lizard brain here). The lizard brain equates survival with:
1) Being in places and situations which feel familiar
2) Sticking to effective habits of living and thinking
3) Being in control of our environment
4) Protecting the ego
Cynicism is defined by Webster’s dictionary as “distrustful of human nature or motives.” In a Harper’s Magazine article titled “The Habits of Highly Cynical People,” Rebecca Solnit writes,”Cynicism is first of all a style of presenting oneself, and it takes pride more than anything in not being fooled and not being foolish.” This is the root cause of cynicism: not being fooled and not looking foolish.
In small doses, cynicism — like the lizard brain as a whole — has its uses. For instance, when a parent tells their child not to take candy from strangers, they are teaching the child to distrust the motives of outsiders in order to keep them safe.
But what about those commenters on the young girl’s performance? How does cynicism about a family’s plight with cancer keep us alive? The answer is that in reality, it doesn’t — but it feels like it does to the lizard brain. The lizard brain is very aggressive at scanning for threats, and because of this humans have developed an aversion to loss that keeps us vigilant in trying to protect ourselves. So if we distrust everyone, then we can never be at a loss or fooled by anything. Even though no one’s survival is threatened by the young girl’s family in the video, if we automatically doubt their sincerity or motives, we can protect our ego from feeling threatened.
Here’s another example of this dynamic playing out in the social sphere. Recently, a story in the New York Post and the Guardian featured a married couple professing to be “Breatharians” (people who claim to engage in extreme fasts from food and water by relying on the energy carried in the air). The wife even reported that she fasted through her two pregnancies. The story was shared on social media over 50,000 times until CNN called foul, and Snopes (a fact-checking website) dismissed the story as defying all that is known in science about how humans survive.
For people who initially believed this story, the lizard brain directs them to two options: either insist that the Breatharians are real, or become more cynical to ensure that they will not be fooled by similar stories in the future. Given the two options, cynicism seems a better path.
But cynicism can be damaging to our lives over time — especially in relationships and work. In regard to health, individuals with high levels of cynicism are three times more likely to get dementia, and have higher rates of overall mortality, heart disease, and cancer-related deaths. A study by the American Psychological Association found that cynics also tend to make less money. This is most likely because their more trusting counterparts are better at collaboration and spend less of their time and energy trying to protect themselves. Other studies have found that cynicism can ruin our attempts to form and maintain romantic relationships.
So, while there are occasions where a cynical stance is helpful, it can also have extremely high costs if we maintain it long-term. How do we find balance in the protective qualities of cynicism while avoiding its harmful outcomes?
First, we can practice intentionality in what we are cynical about — starting with bringing mindful attention to our cynical thinking as it arises on a day-to-day level. Once we are aware of the degree to which we engage in cynicism, the next step is disciplining the mind to evaluate whether or not we are in real danger. It might be wise to be cynical about people who are trying to sell us things for personal profit or gain, especially if these people have violated our trust before. But what about when our ego doesn’t want to appear foolish or weak, and perceives threats that aren’t real?
Second, we can navigate cynicism by trying on a different experience of doubt such as skepticism. Although, cynicism and skepticism are sometimes used interchangeably, they are not the same. Webster’s dictionary defines skepticism as “an attitude of questioning the truth of something.” Science is a profession that relies on skepticism. Scientists don’t generally refuse any and all arguments outright. But they do question the methodology, arguments, or findings of others before accepting them. So, when we maintain a sense of skepticism, it serves to protect us without constantly and automatically rejecting others as insincere or harmful. This leaves us open to the wonderful possibilities presented to us every day in our relationships, business opportunities, and even in something as simple as a song between a daughter and her father.
What do you think about cynicism vs. skepticism? Do you have any thoughts on navigating the tension between protecting yourself and being open to new opportunities? Let us know.