Cynicism, in the right doses, is good.
But it’s possible -and easy- to go too far with cynicism.
When that happens, cynicism sours your mood, hampers your social strategies, and caps your potential for success.
This post will help you strike a good balance.
Cynicism: What Is It
Let’s look at two definitions of cynicism.
An inclination to believe that people are motivated purely by self-interest
And the Cambridge dictionary:
Believing that people are only interested in themselves and are not sincere.
There is obviously some merit in these approaches.
After all, humans are self-interested.
Just like any living organism, if humans weren’t self-interested, we wouldn’t have survived long -and reproduced-.
But we have…
Positive Cynicism: Where Virtue Lies
Cynicism is like a vaccine:
Get a bit of those antigen, and you get stronger.
Get too many of those live pathogens, and you get sick.
The virtue is internalizing enough healthy cynicism, without getting poisoned.
I call this positive balance “positive cynicism”, and positive cynicism is embedded in the very fabric of this website.
And it couldn’t be otherwise.
Learning power dynamics, investigating the realities of manipulation, and discussing life strategies that are effective already leads us into the antechamber of the cynic castle.
For one, you quickly realize there is a big divide between what people say, what people do, and what’s effective.
Just one example among hundreds we could pick:
- Machiavellianism at work: the truth of what gets people to the top, rather than the feel-good story of doing good work and using emotional intelligence for being a good manager of people
That reality can be shocking to some.
People can lose their bearings. Some feel cheated by the lies they were fed, former idealists get bitter, and they get dragged into the abyss of darkness.
To paraphrase Nietzche:
The cynics gazed long into the abyss. And they let the abyss get to them
To me, that’s a tragedy.
You descended into earth to learn what the turkeys do -cheat, lie, and steal. No shit! That’s why they’re turkeys-.
And instead of taking that opportunity to soar back up, past your previous “naive dove level” and joining in with the eagles… You remain hanging with the turkeys :S.
The eagles’ level starts at the positive cynic level (and then further upgrades with the smart strategies we share here).
On this website, we share many strategies and techniques that rest on positive cynicism.
Positive Cynic #1: accept your own “dark” side
We are selfish.
We know that by now.
Yes, we are both naturally equipped, and socialized, to deny our selfish nature.
But that’s a denial of human nature. And one example of what we call here “standard manipulation”, such as manipulation and self-manipulation that we all engage in.
Aberrations of denying one’s own dark side
Aberration and examples of human nature denials include:
- Virtue signaling: all about pretending not to be selfish
- Guilt-tripping: blaming others for supposedly “exploiting” their “unfair” advantages to advance their interests (how dare they)
- Cancel culture: some statue should go, but there is a certain manipulative aspect in cancel culture which says “I cancel this guy because he was bad and selfish, and that makes me good”
- Moralizing & shame attacks: “you’re so bad, and that makes me good”
Our denial evolved for a reason. Because, sometimes, it makes sense to publicly deny our selfish nature, since that could invite more collaboration and help from others (also see: Machiavellian virtue signaling).
But it’s far healthier to admit, at least to ourselves, that we are self-interested.
And if that “darker side” such as a will to power or status shows, it’s usually much more powerful to just own them.
Failure to do so makes you an insecure, thin-skinned, hypocrite.
See an example:
- Ray Dalio denies his dark side: and looks like a hypocrite
Accepting our own dark side is also crucial to our self-development. Ironically, once you can accept your dark side, then and only then you can also transcend it.
We write on our review of “The Selfish Gene” in the “best power books list“:
This book then is about learning our gene’s programming so that we can understand it and, if we don’t like it, change it or eventually transcend it.
That’s the first step to gaining power over ourselves and our world.
John aptly called this step “understanding our biological self“.
Positive Cynic #2: Approach others with their self-interest in mind (WIIFT)
This ABC of basic social skills rests, in part, on cynicism.
It’s about understanding and accepting that people, being self-interested, aren’t there to serve you just because you need something.
If you want something from others, then you must first address their (righteous) self-interest and give something back.
Read more on this topic:
- The social exchange theory: not really but simply how people think and behave
- WIIFT: the basic rules of approaching others with their self-interest in mind
- WIIFT Failures: a collection of real-life examples of failing to be “healthy cynics”
Positive Cynic #3. Seek to align interests
This is another the foundations of “enlightened win-win“.
The enlightened collaborator, who is a positive cynic at heart, knows that win-win is possible, but he also knows that giving and trusting entails some risks.
So he acts to minimize those risks.
One way to do so is by alining interest. “Exchange risks” are always far smaller if the selfish interests are aligned.
Align interests, and you can collaborate with a far lighter heart.
4 Steps to Positive Cynicism
Positive cynicism is based on 4 mindsets and beliefs:
- Reality-based self-acceptance: accept the extent, limits, as well as exceptions of our own selfish nature
- Reality-based people’s acceptance: accept the extent, limits, as well as exceptions of people’s selfish nature
- Reality-based strategies: work with people’s nature in mind, rather than against it (or ignoring it). The positive cynic has high power quotient
- Reality-based win-win: win-win is never guaranteed, but possible. And it’s possible to take several steps to increase the likelihood and strength of those win-win relationships
Win-win and value-adding strategies rest on healthy cynicism.
It might sound like a contradiction, but a healthy dose of cynicism enables win-win, collaboration, and a value-giving approach to social interactions.
Heck, a healthy cynic might even spend his whole life-giving and asking nothing back. But to be effective with his giving, he better learn human nature, including how effective persuasion works.
Toxic Cynicism (“The Cynic Trap”)
As we said: the full dose of cynicism is toxic.
To explain why, let’s start again with the definitions of cynicism:
An inclination to believe that people are motivated purely by self-interest
Believing that people are only interested in themselves and are not sincere.
I bet you see the issue the issues already:
- Generalizes to all humans
- Generalizes to all situations
It is simply not true that humans are motivated purely or only by self-interest.
But the biggest issue of cynicism is not the misrepresentation of reality, but, as we shall see, the harmful consequences it unleashes.
The Cynic Mindset Traits
The full dose of cynicism entails the following beliefs:
- Zero-sum world with no win-win: in a zero-sum world full of nasty people, there cannot be win-win
- You either play or get played: it’s dog-eat-dog. You either play, or you get played
- Win-win relationships between equals do not exist: it’s either one wins, or he loses
- You cannot trust others: always play to make the other lose, because he would do the same with you
Now in some cases, with some people, those views might be correct.
The problem is when you (mis)apply those beliefs and preconceptions to all people and scenarios.
The Appeal of Cynicism: Bastion Against PC
There are influential cynical schools of thoughts these days.
And I can see why they are so successful.
Political correctness and much of popular self-help are so out of touch with reality that cynicism sounds “real”.
I see a few culprits here:
- Political correctness: repressing and turning many natural expressions of human nature into taboos created its opposite: a wave of cynic ostentation of the worst expressions of human nature
- Denial of human nature: the standard social science model and its denial of human nature took over universities first and general culture later (Pinker, 2002), a phenomenon which probably helped propel populist (and cynic) politicians to power
- Silicon Valley slogans:
Selfish-motive denialists like Holmes promote cynicism as the seemingly only true answer to their BS
- Self-Help Naivete: many self-help authors don’t sell what worked to make them rich, but what sounds good and sells more (“paradox of practice”)
Take the single biggest best-selling self-help book in the world: “Think and Grow Rich“.
Men who labor will receive more (..) they will receive dividends (…).
But first, they must give more to their employer, and stop this bickering and bargaining by force.
This is “idealistic giving” from a “naive collaborator” mindset.
Such as: “give and hope”.
It fails to consider that, if you have no negotiation leverage, you’re at the mercy of the owners. And might just take the added value, without giving anything back.
With this type of weak self-help, some popular literature on power and success has found fertile ground by espousing full cynicism -see “The 48 Laws of Power“-.
And it helped spawn the idea that cheating and manipulating is the best way to achieve success.
Feminism & Red Pill Cynicism
Robert Greene aside, the biggest culprits of modern cynicism might be these:
- Feminism: presupposes win-win relationships with men are difficult or impossible
- Red pill: presupposes win-win relationships with women are difficult or impossible
Both feminism and the red pill deal with intersexual dynamics, dating, and relationships. They’re both based on massive doses of “poisonous cynicism”, and on the belief that win-win is hardly possible, or outright impossible.
I think you can see the issue: if you don’t believe that win-win is even possible, how are you ever going to achieve it?
Most likely, you won’t.
Indeed, the problem with ultra-cynicism is that cynicism creates its own world of lose-lose (“self-fulfilling prophecy”).
Let’s see why.
Case-Study Against Ultra-Cynicism 1: Donald Trump
In politics, Trump is a great example of cynicism.
Trump, the author of “The Art of The Deal” made his cynic, dog-eat-dog attitude a trademark of his style.
Trump provides a great case study of an ultra-cynic who:
- approaches relationships with a competition first mindset
- refuses or sours many chances for cooperation
And what happens is that the ultra-cynic world where coooperation is impossible creates a world of competition and enemies.
Read more here:
Or just take a look at this picture:
Sure, CNN is biased -and annoyingly so!-.
But you don’t need to be a staunch Democrat to convene that Trump has made few friends, and lots of enemies.
Case Against Ultra-Cynicism 2: Game Theory
Let’s see now how cynics lose with this variation of the prisoner’s dilemma:
The pay off for the different approaches are:
- Win-win: $10 for both with mutual cooperation
- Win-lose: $20 for the defector when the other collaborates (cheating)
- Lose-lose: $1 for mutual defection
The cheater “wins big” the first time when playing against a cooperator.
But as soon as the game is repeated, the collaborator most likely adjusts his strategy to defect as well, and the game turns into a lose-lose for both. If you run this game for 3-4 times the defector strategy is a losing one.
As a matter of fact, the more you run the game (repeated game), the bigger the opportunity loss.
In game theory, defecting players remain stuck with the little pay-offs of their defensive strategies (the Nash Equilibrium). But that equilibrium, also called “manipulation equilibrium point”, leads to Pareto-inefficient results (Clempner, 2016).
In simpler terms: in repeated games, the more you interact, the poorer the defector strategy performs.
Cooperative players who gain the trust of trustworthy players instead leverage win-win relationships and reap bigger rewards with each transaction.
In the meanwhile, the cheater incurs an opportunity loss and falls behind.
What are these repeated games in real-life?
The repeated games that cynic defectors fail at are our relationships.
Our friends, spouses, brothers, sisters, colleagues, neighbors… These are our real-life repeated games.
The cynic loses opportunities for collaborative and healthy relationships with the most important people in life.
The Different Mindsets Leading to Totally Opposite Lives
Post-interviews confirm the two different mindsets of collaboration and defection (cynic).
Cooperators who played against defectors shrug it off saying that the game is just like real life, and there are all different sorts of people.
And they walk away that are still open to future collaboration and win-win.
But the defector?
The defector has shaped his own reality of win-lose, and he will walk away thinking that he is right all along in refusing the possibility of win-win.
Case Against Ultra-Cynicism 3: Homo Reciprocans Wins
The “zero-sum mindset” dominated economics for a while.
The “rational operator”, also quipped as “homo economicus“, was the central figure of the Chicago School of Economics.
The homo economicus operates rationally, defects whenever it’s good for him, and optimizes transactions and social exchanges for self-interest.
Luckily, as psychology improved the field of economics, a new view, with a new man started taking hold.
This new man was less perfectly rational, and more fallibly human. This man sometimes quipped “homo reciprocans” even had feelings -Chicago economics be damned- and, lo and behold, also sought collaboration and mutual gains (see Thaler, 2015).
The two models are not mutually exclusive, of course, but behavioral economics showed that people can naturally seek collaboration.
Later researches have also shown that homo reciprocans tend to be more successful in life and, unsurprisingly for us but maybe shocking for our Chicago economists, to have higher life satisfaction (see Dohmen et al., 2006)
Case Against Ultra-Cynicism 3: Negotiation Studies
Western negotiation literature used to be deeply cynic.
It was all about defecting, showing power and grabbing as much as possible of that negotiation pie.
In modern negotiation science, the uncollaborative approach is sometimes referred to as “fixed pied mindset” (Malotra, 2007).
The fixed pied sees negotiation as zero-sum games and can be summarized as such:
If one negotiator takes more, the other must lose.
And some negotiations are fixed pie negotiations.
But not all of them, and not all the times.
Things started to change when negotiation also started being more scientific, with seminal work from Ury and Fisher, Cialdini, and, more recently, Chris Voss.
Cialdini for example wrote in his seminal “Influence” that concessions lead to better negotiation results (Cialdni, 1984).
These authors heralded a new approach to negotiation that is also about win-win and “pie-enlarging strategies”.
Case Against Ultra-Cynicism 3: Evolution of Cooperation
The cynic approach was a much-needed revolution in evolutionary psychology.
Hamilton‘s first insight that communication among animals could also be exploitative and manipulative went mainstream with Dawkin’s book “The Selfish Gene“.
In brief, the selfish gene theory postulates that self-interest permeates everything in life.
It was a great insight, but it needed corrections which, in time, arrived.
Dawkins is a true scientist, so he took stock of the new scientific evidence, acknowledged, and made amends.
In more recent versions of “The Selfish Gene”, Dawkins writes:
Cooperation and mutual assistance can flourish even in a basically selfish world (…) we can see how even nice guys can finish first.
Dawkins went as far as to say that he could have called his book “The Cooperative Gene”.
Today, evolutionary psychology disagree on a few things. But one thing they agree on, is that cooperation emerged because it’s (also) good for the selfish individual (Ridley, 1994).
After all, if cooperation wasn’t good for the selfish gene, relationships wouldn’t have emerged.
But relationships did emerge because, when leveraged, effective social relationships offer an opportunity for a competitive advantage.
Kindness As Selection Trait
Finally, a cynic worldview struggles to explain traits like kindness or altruism.
And yet, kindness is one of the most sought-after traits in ideal mates (Buss, 2016).
Human kindness and altruism have been possibly selected through sexual selection (Boone, 1998, and Miller, 2000), meaning that a collaborative attitude has at least the potential of also being a sexual advantage.
Case Against Ultra-Cynicism 5: Relationship Research
Finally, we get to discuss the pleasure of relationships as well.
There is plenty of research to show that humans are happier and healthier when they enjoy strong relationships.
And John Gottman’s research shows that highly mistrustful men -such as, cynics- die significantly younger (Gottman, 2011).
In relationships, these men withdraw from relationships in fear of being taken advantage of (we call this approach “fearful defector”, and it’s a consequence of a “defensive mindset”).
There is another option for cooperation.
And that’s the “Machiavellian cooperator”.
Harriet Braiker says of the Machiavellian type:
Machiavellianism is defined as a manipulative strategy of social interaction and personality style that uses other people as tools of personal gain.
In the context of laboratory experiment games, high machs display a keen and opportunistic sense of timing, and they appear to capitalize especially in situations that contain ambiguity regarding the rules.
Machiavellians are fluid in their win-win or win-lose strategy, switching depending on the situation, and depending on what best suits their needs.
See, a win-lose mindset is not necessarily bad, and there are situations in which it can provide bigger pay-offs.
- Zero-sum games
In life, there are also zero-sum exchanges, and zero-sum exchanges are win-lose.
Duels tend to be zero-sum game: for one to win, the other must lose.
There can be smart exceptions though, like raising your hands to stop the game, or throwing your gun away as a collaborative step forward. Great strategies if you can’t draw quickly and/or shoot well
- One-off interactions
One-off interactions are the interactions you must be most careful for, since there are fewer incentives for the other players not to defect or cheat.
Some off-shoos of the silver-medal technique are designed to limit the chances of defection in these instances.
- Long-term relationships about to end
When a long-term win-win relationship is about to end, there are no future interactions to incentivize win-win, and people can revert to win-lose.
That’s why prenups make sense: when a marriage is ending, there is nothing besides her value and ethics that will keep your spouse from taking as much as she (/he) can.
- Long-term relationships with naive players
- Common goods
Common goods are open to everyone, but finite.
The environment is an example of a common good, and the most Machiavellian thing one can do is to enjoy it, while doing nothing of his own to preserve it.
As Berz says:
Individual defection can improve the individual’s life at the detriment of the collectivity.
Berz, 2016, “Game Theory Bargaining“
Should you be a Machiavellian?
Let’s review one research.
One research linking Machiavellianism to life satisfaction showed that those who adopted an approach of deception/manipulation for career promotions, had significantly lower life satisfaction (Kyl-Heku & Buss, 1996).
But that’s only one research, so I wouldn’t say it’s really conclusive.
The other issue with a Machiavellian approach to social exchanges is that it often shows.
And when it shows, in the best case, Machiavellians come across as shrewd, but a bit shifty. And in the worst case, they come across as people you should not be close with.
Of course, it’s also possible you execute the Machiavellian approach to perfection and only end up maximizing your gains.
And that’s where the values and ethics arguments kick in.
This website is about telling you the truth first and foremost.
But it also embraces the development of personal ethics and values as a path to self-development. So I cannot fully endorse full-on Machiavellianism as a general lifestyle.
However, in some cases, it can be fair game.
For example, when dealing with a nasty game player, a bully, or anyone who tried to unashamedly take advantage of you or others, it can be fair to turn yourself into a prince of darkness.
However, as a general rule of thumb, you’re probably going to be a higher quality man if you just go for the power-intelligent, but otherwise value-adding enlightened collaborator.
And then you can go through life knowing that your heart and mind are in the right place.
Cynicism is a double edge sword.
Some elements of cynicism are necessary to be effective and successful in life.
But too much cynicism will make you unhappier, and less effective.
Positive cynicism embraces the harsh truths that cynicism uncovers, while also accepting that people can act good, at times, and that cooperation is not only possible, but also enhanced by the acceptance of people’s dark sides.