In the fourth century BC, cynics wanted to live like dogs. The Cynics were Greek philosophers who rejected conventional ideas about money, power, and shelter. Instead, they advocated living simply, aligned with nature. The founder of this school of thought, Antisthenes, purportedly lived on the streets of Athens, ate raw meat, and preached a life of poverty (though sometimes he just barked at people from a platform). The word cynic even stems from the Greek word for dog—”kynos.”
Today, cynicism has come to mean something very different than it did to the ancient Greeks. Self-identified cynics pride themselves on skepticism and their ability to be wary of other people’s motives as a sign of discerning intelligence. Our fictions bolster this myth by favoring world-weary protagonists like detective Sherlock Holmes, who sniff out truths that elude the rest of us because he sees the worst in people.
Yet a new study of cynicism argues that the cynical genius is a myth. In a comprehensive cross-cultural analysis published in the Personal and Social Psychology Bulletin on July 11, social psychologist Olga Stavrova of Tilburg University in the Netherlands and evolutionary psychologist Daniel Ehlebracht from the University of Cologne in Germany conclude that the most competent people aren’t so cynical after all.
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