Home > Metacognition > Lower that cynical finger…and consider pointing it at yourself!

Lower that cynical finger…and consider pointing it at yourself!

Yep, we are talking about you!

I’m sure we are all accustomed to that tingling power-trip feeling of blaming all of our personal and world problems on others. Heck no, global warming is not your fault.
Heck no, you aren’t the reason why that last relationship didn’t work out. Of course your lab partner is going to take more credit for that assignment than he or she actually deserves… Right? Now I know this might be a little distressing to hear, but this whole cynical worldview you’ve got going on… It’s not a great look. Not only is it inaccurate, but it’s making you look a little bit like a Debby Downer. Now hear me out, prove to me you aren’t a hopeless cynic by fighting the assumption that this post is a jumble of nonsense written by a college student. I can give you a second to decide if you want to give this a shot…

Oh great, so you do! Let’s try and shake this cynical shroud, shall we, and rip off that biased blindfold, because I

Drop that attitude!

think it’s about time you hear about the ways in which all of this cynicism can really throw you off your game. I hate to tell you, but oftentimes this ‘tude is hurting you more than helping you.
 Just try to sit back and relax while we walk through this together. I’m sure keeping your guard up all the time has been exhausting. Maybe we can change that and provide you with a little more clarity about others and yourself.

You, my friend, are suffering from the cognitive bias that psychologists Kruger and Gilovich (1999) like to call naïve cynicism. This rests on the three basic principles that a) people believe they are unbiased; b) people believe all others are biased, and;  c) people believe the intentions and actions of others reflect these egocentric biases and therefore are innately motivated by self-interest. This bias branches off of a similar bias known as naïve realism, where each and every individual believes that their world-view is objective (pffft, yeah right) meaning that anyone who opposes them has either misaligned morals or cognition.

This tendency for cynicism means that when doling out credit and blame, we tend to assume that people will overestimate deserved credit for activities that reflect positively on them, and underestimate deserved blame for activities that might reflect negatively on them. We therefore assume that people will be biased towards themselves, seeing themselves in a more positive light. For example, couples were more likely to expect that their spouse would claim more than their realistic share of responsibility for desirable activities such as resolving relationship conflicts or tailoring their appearance to please one another. Both individuals in each couple also expected their spouse to claim less than their share of responsibility for undesirable activities such as causing arguments or forgetting to pay the bills. This might leave you wondering why a couple would choose to stay in a relationship when they think so poorly of each other. Before you go comparing these expectations to those you hold for your little special someone, further observation showed that people are much more accountable than we may think, jumping to take more blame for negative outcomes than credit for positive outcomes (Kruger & Gilovich, 1999). Rest assured, more people are likely to own up to mistakes than you might have anticipated.

Not only do we believe that people take credit for things they don’t deserve, but we also believe that all of their motivations are biased to serve their own self-interests. Studies, however, show that this is not always the case, and that when individuals are self-serving it is to a much lesser degree than what is assumed (Kruger & Gilovich, 1999). For example, a study used a video game where pairs were pitted against a common foe. In order to win the game, each player needed to be other-serving, as any failure on their part would also hurt their teammate. Teammates inaccurately assumed that their partner was focused solely on individual success, and so figured that at the end of the game, they would attempt to take credit for all positive outcomes. In reality, individuals were not just motivated by their own success, but also by the success of their partner. Team partners, therefore, ended up taking more blame for poor outcomes than credit for good outcomes. Maybe next time you should consider that your lab partner wants to help make your share of the workload easier instead of harder.

As I mentioned earlier, one of the key principles of naïve cynicism is the tendency of an individual to neglect bias in their own behaviors/opinions. As humans, we suffer from this little handicap known as the “bias blind spot,”which causes individuals to vehemently declare their judgments as being less susceptible to bias than those of their corrupted counterparts. We tend to crown ourselves with perfect objectivity.

The Bias Nametag

On a certain level, this makes sense, doesn’t it? It’s not like anyone wants to slap the label of bias on their foreheadsThe disparaging connotations of the word “bias” drive individuals to try and downplay its presence in their lives, and if possible, to dissociate with it altogether. This can inhibit individuals from accurately perceiving bias in their own actions and judgments (Pronin et al., 2004). Still think this doesn’t apply to you? Well, you aren’t alone. Even Stanford students reported that they were supposedly less susceptible than the average American to a whole slew of cognitive biases (Pronin et al., 2004).

What’s worse you might ask? We are so blinded from our own bias that when looking inward to our own identities and past experiences, we tend to assume that our judgments and perceptions are not only unbiased but are enlightened (Ehrlinger et al. 2005). You naïve cynic you… You think you have acted not because of your preferences but in spite of them! But is our introspection all it’s cracked up to be? Sadly, no. Turning to introspection doesn’t eliminate bias in our own judgments, it only exacerbates them. Although we analyze our own thoughts, we do not fully understand the unconscious processes that led us to them. It appears as though it’s time to wake up and smell the roses darling; we aren’t all enlightened experts.

On the rare chance that an individual does own up to bias, they still rate themselves as being less influenced by bias than others (Ehrlinger et al. 2005). This is the classic case of “yeah I messed up, but not as much as the next guy.” To avoid being called out for bias, naïve cynics often precede opinion statements with declarative warnings such as “I may be biased but…” This gives the false illusion that the individual is openly displaying their bias, when in fact, they are only making such assertions for the eyes of the public. People hope that by proclaiming to have considered bias in their statement, they can suggest that their judgment is actually unbiased (Pronin et al., 2004).

So now I’m sure you are wondering, why does this even matter? “Leave me perched upon my high horse in a cesspool of cynicism… it’s my own right!” This is a huge, and I mean HUGE red flag that our systems of metacognition, the awareness of our own thought processes, aren’t as accurate as we had thought. If it isn’t already evident, this should be a massive wake-up call that our perception of reality is not always a realistic representation. These errors in metacognition can be observed by examining the impact of technology on driving. For example, people think they are experts at talking on a cellphone while driving, when in fact they operate with a significantly reduced awareness and a narrower field of vision (Strayer et al., 2011) Looks like you aren’t quite the multi-tasking queen you thought. you were.

All of these incorrect assumptions can lead to social conflict, blame, and distrust among partners, peers, and coworkers (Ehrlinger et al. 2005). Sounds messy, right? You might be quick to think that when your mom “forgot” to pick up your favorite ice-cream at Hannaford, that it was actually her plan all along; a strategy to pursue her self-serving motivation to be a “better mom” and force you to eat healthier. Perhaps, in actuality, she became stressed about starting dinner on time and so sped home after work, the only thought in her head about how long the oven would take to preheat. In the discussed studies above, Kruger and Golovich (1999) show that couples tend to see each other in a cynical light, assuming they think more about themselves than their significant other. This constant misinterpretation and metacognitive error can manifest in gross miscommunications and subsequent relationship strain. Your sweetheart could be at risk!  In fact, naïve cynicism can deter us from entering into relationshipsaltogether, assuming people are only invested in serving themselves in a relationship than in serving another.

Naïve cynicism is not limited to intimate relationships, however, as it can affect peer relations by exacerbating intergroup conflict, especially in politics. According to Robinson and colleagues (1995), this bias amplifies political polarization, causing individuals to perceive a greater gap between oppositional political views than is accurate (Pronin et al., 2004). Naïve cynicism would have you believe that political identities are limited to either flaming conservatives or radical liberals, a hyperpolarization of the political spectrum which eliminates tolerance for moderate views. Since when was taking the middle ground on an issue suddenly a sin? Suddenly, all we are left with is a self-perpetuating cycle of conflict and aggression; either our opponents are trying to “pull a fast one” over on us, or they are simply stubborn and “irrational” in their beliefs. This hyperpolarization makes the prospect of reconciliation and productive conversation seemingly unattainable, pitting the nation against itself. How could we expect to work with someone who only cares about their own interests and will fail to take responsibility for negative outcomes?  

Democrats vs Republicans: The endless cycle of political blame.

In order to help combat these political consequences of naïve cynicism, authors Benforado and Hanson (2008) suggest that individuals attempt to understand behavior through a situationist rather than a dispositional perspective. When using a situationist perspective one blames individual behavior as the result of a specific situation or contextual factors, whereas when using a dispositional perspective, one blames individual behavior as the result of personal characteristics or inclinations. We tend to utilize a situationist perspective when analyzing our own actions, for when we are an actor in an event, we tend to focus more on the situation. When we are an observer of an event, however, we tend to be more focused on the behavior of the actors, and thus utilize a dispositional perspective (Pronin et al., 2004). Now… look at that… Although your metacognition leads you to believe that you are judging yourself and others to the same extent, you AREN’T! While you tend to see yourself as a victim of circumstance, you see others as personally driven monsters! It’s a bit harsh… Don’t you think? Not only does our metacognition cause us to miss aspects of our reality, but it also morphs and creates illusions within our realities. You may be creating personal incentives in people where there are none! We do this because, according to educational psychologist Peter Doolittle, we are meaning-making machines, and therefore, when we see behavior that misaligns with ours, we seek to find explanations. Unfortunately, this explanation, as we see with naïve cynicism, is the assumption that these actions are being driven by self-serving biases. Well, while you are blind to your own cynical tendencies, these negative attributions end up affecting the policy landscape, causing laws and legal theories to be shaped by unsupported institutions and outward assertions of bias, ignorance, and misinformation.

We make the same cynical attributions of bias not only onto opposing political actors but also onto third-party actors such as media outlets that attempt to report reality in shades of grey rather than in black and white. Although the job of these sources is to supposedly offer neutral/unbiased views on subjects, when we encounter such attempts to view world issues in shades of grey, we believe they are automatically in support of the other side and thus biased (Pronin et al., 2004).

Are we mistaking greedy fictional characters for individuals in real life?

So, why not give the situationist position a try when observing others? This outlook will enable us to consider that unequal policy outcomes are a result of unequal situations and justices rather than the sole blame of greedy individuals. This allows us to see events in the world through shades of grey rather than the hyper-polarized black-white, right-wrong dichotomy (Benforado & Hanson, 2008). Let’s save that old school black-and-white vision for the 1960s, shall we?

Some have speculated whether the effects of naïve cynicism are being exacerbated by literary genres, where dark, egocentric, self-motivating characters are being mistaken for the
dispositions of real-life individuals. In other words, your warped metacognition may be transforming ordinary people into villains. Not everyone is trying to kill us with a poison apple or ambush us at our wedding (come on, you GoT fans, I know the Red Wedding episode got your head spinning) (Inglis-Akell, 2014).

Now, now, try and stay calm. I know it’s upsetting to realize that this naïve cynicism has been affecting not only the way you view your personal relationships, but also your relationships in the world at large, and perhaps most importantly, your relationship with yourself. That’s okay, you aren’t alone. TRUST ME. You aren’t special. Everyone suffers from this bias, as it is a natural automatic process. The next step here is not to run around telling everyone to cool it with their judgment. We all have to accept that this cognitive bias, much like many other biases, is a normal psychological process, and are not an “essential characteristic” of any specific out-group (Ehrlinger et al. 2005).

Woohoo! You’ve now become aware of this cognitive bias! This is one important step in helping to overcome these processes and shift the way we operate and interact with others. Now that we can see how the opinions and motivations of others are often more sincere than self-serving, we can hopefully better empathize with one another. There is just one more teensy thing… remember that bias blind spot we were talking about earlier? … Yeah… Ahem… you still have that! Being aware of naïve cynicism does not make you immune! To think that this blog entry was going to absolve you of your biases is a whole other ball game, and by ball game I mean bias. Keep your eyes and hearts open. Listen, communicate, and don’t be so cynical. Next time you lift a finger to judge someone, consider looking at yourself instead.



Benforado, A., & Hanson, J. (2007). Naïve Cynicism: Maintaining False Perceptions in Policy Debates. Emory LJ57, 499.

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Ehrlinger, J., Gilovich, T., & Ross, L. (2005). Peering Into the Bias Blind Spot: People’s Assessments of Bias in Themselves and Others. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin,31(5), 680-692. doi:10.1177/0146167204271570

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Pronin, E., Gilovich, T., & Ross, L. (2004). Objectivity in the eye of the beholder: divergent perceptions of bias in self versus others. Psychological review111(3), 781.

Three Hours Later (Can you move it along? I’m all out of timecards) [Image]. (2002). Retrieved November 16, 2020, from https://spongebob.fandom.com/wiki/List_of_time_cards

Toodystark, & Guerin, K. (n.d.). Hello, I’m Biased and I won’t admit it Nametag [Image]. Retrieved November 16, 2020, from https://www.redbubble.com/i/sticker/Hello-I-m-Your-Name-Here-by-toodystark/20793412.EJUG5

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