How ‘Naive Cynicism’ May Poison Your Relationships

Cynicism has its uses. Being suspicious about the motives of others won’t leave you gasping when you are tricked. Expecting negative events means you are never disappointed. Anything good is a bonus. But can cynicism go to far? A study by Kruger and Gilovich (1999) suggests it can.

The authors asked married couples to estimate how often their partner was responsible for both desirable and undesirable relationship events. This came out about even: each person admitted causing some bad events while claiming responsibility for some of the good events in the relationship. Half and half, fair’s fair.

They then asked each person to estimate what their partner had claimed. Here’s the surprise. On average people assumed their partners would take more responsibility for the good events and deny the bad events. Actually they’d done nothing of the sort.

“People tended to assume that others are more biased than they really are.”It’s not just married people who show this bias. The authors also studied video game players, debaters and darts players. A similar type of bias was seen in these groups as well. People tended to assume that others are more biased than they really are. This bias is called ‘naive cynicism’. It is wrongly thinking the worst of other people.

Research in children shows this bias develops early. Mills and Keil (2005) found that by as young as seven children have learnt to be cynical. The authors even suggest children may be more cynical than adults.

Life can be more pleasant – especially with your partner – when you give the benefit of the doubt. It may well be the cynics who are deluding themselves.

» This post is part of a series on the psychology of relationships.

References

Kruger, J., & Gilovich, T. (1999). Naive cynicism. everyday theories of responsibility assessment: On biased assumptions of bias. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 76, 743-753.

Mills, C. M., & Keil, F. C. (2005). The Development of Cynicism. Psychological Science, 16(5), 385-390.

About the author


Dr Jeremy Dean is a psychologist and the author of PsyBlog. His latest book is "Making Habits, Breaking Habits: How to Make Changes That Stick". You can follow PsyBlog by email, by RSS feed, on Twitter and Google+.

Published: 22 February 2007

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