Cynicism and disrespect: A vicious cycle

Summary: Being treated disrespectfully by others can lead to cynicism about human nature, and in turn, cynicism about human nature can lead people to treat others with disrespect.

Source: University of Cologne

An international team of scientists has found out that being treated disrespectfully can lead people to develop cynical beliefs about human nature. Cynical beliefs about human nature, in turn, contribute to again being treated disrespectfully by others – and behaving disrespectfully towards others oneself. Through elaborate cross-sectional, longitudinal and experimental studies, the scientists showed that disrespect and cynicism constitute a vicious circle.

The joint publication by the social psychologist Dr Daniel Ehlebracht (University of Cologne) as well as Dr Olga Stavrova (Tilburg University, Netherlands) and Dr Kathleen D. Vohs (University of Minnesota, USA), is now available in an online version and will soon appear in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.

The researchers used different methods: They proved the causal effect of experienced disrespect on cynicism as well as the opposite case, i.e., of cynicism on experiencing disrespect, in a total of five experimental studies with 1,149 participants, and one diary study with 462 participants.

A cross-sectional analysis of data from the European Social Survey (ESS) with representative population samples of European countries (a total of 53,333 respondents) showed a clear connection between experienced disrespect and cynicism in 28 out of 29 countries.

This shows a man holding a mask
The researchers used different methods: They proved the causal effect of experienced disrespect on cynicism as well as the opposite case, i.e., of cynicism on experiencing disrespect, in a total of five experimental studies with 1,149 participants, and one diary study with 462 participants. The image is in the public domain.

A longitudinal analysis of data from the US Health and Retirement Study (HRS) with a total of 19,922 respondents showed that, on the one hand, experienced disrespect predicted the development of cynicism over a period of four years. On the other hand, harboring cynical beliefs about human nature also made future experiences of disrespect more likely.

Daniel Ehlebracht remarked: ‘When people are treated disrespectfully by others, they often tend to generalize their negative experiences and unwarrantedly consider other people to be immoral, unfair and selfish in general. However, such a distorted image of humanity can paradoxically lead to provoking renewed bad experiences with other people and also to a tendency to treat others badly oneself.’

According to Ehlebracht, the scientists’ new findings can also help to understand why cynicism and disrespect towards others are on the rise in many societies.

About this neuroscience research article

Source:
University of Cologne
Media Contacts:
Daniel Ehlebracht – University of Cologne
Image Source:
The image is in the public domain.

Original Research: Open access
“Victims, perpetrators, or both? The vicious cycle of disrespect and cynical beliefs about human nature”. Stavrova, O., Ehlebracht, D., & Vohs, K. D.
Journal of Experimental Psychology: General doi:10.1037/xge0000738.

Abstract

Victims, perpetrators, or both? The vicious cycle of disrespect and cynical beliefs about human nature

We tested how cynicism emerges and what maintains it. Cynicism is the tendency to believe that people are morally bankrupt and behave treacherously to maximize self-interest. Drawing on literatures on norms of respectful treatment, we proposed that being the target of disrespect gives rise to cynical views, which predisposes people to further disrespect. The end result is a vicious cycle: cynicism and disrespect fuel one another. Study 1’s nationally representative survey showed that disrespect and cynicism are positively related to each other in 28 of 29 countries studied, and that cynicism’s associations with disrespect were independent of (and stronger than) associations with lacking social support. Study 2 used a nationally representative longitudinal dataset, spanning 4 years. In line with the vicious cycle hypothesis, feeling disrespected and holding cynical views gave rise to each other over time. Five preregistered experiments (including 2 in the online supplemental materials) provided causal evidence. Study 3 showed that bringing to mind previous experiences of being disrespected heightened cynical beliefs subsequently. Studies 4 and 5 showed that to the extent that people endorsed cynical beliefs, others were inclined to treat them disrespectfully. Study 6’s weeklong daily diary study replicated the vicious cycle pattern. Everyday experiences of disrespect elevated cynical beliefs and vice versa. Moreover, cynical individuals tended to treat others with disrespect, which in turn predicted more disrespectful treatment by others. In short, experiencing disrespect gives rise to cynicism and cynicism elicits disrespect from others, thereby reinforcing the worldview that caused these negative reactions in the first place.

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