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Did you know that cynicism is detrimental to your health but a bad health also leads to cynicism?

March 2019

Are most people only interested in their own benefit? Should I always distrust strangers? These are questions cynical people would answer in the affirmative: Cynicism describes a worldview within which people and their motives are evaluated negatively. Seeing the world in this way may impair one’s health: People who think of others as self-interested and dishonest have a higher likelihood of falling ill with diseases such as atherosclerosis, diabetes, and dementia than people who see others favorably – and they even have a higher mortality risk.

A study by ISS researcher Daniel Ehlebracht and Olga Stavrova from the University of Tilburg now shows that for this phenomenon, causality goes both ways: Cynicism makes people sick – but being sick also makes people cynical. There are even historical examples for this such as Henry VIII.: Initially an open and progressive ruler, he is said to have become distrustful in a nothing less than paranoid way after incurring a severe riding accident. To systematically assess whether such an effect exists, the two social psychologists analyzed data from the German Socio-Economic Panel (SOEP) and the US Health and Retirement Study (HRS). In both samples, the authors found an effect of bad health on cynicism. For their analysis, they looked at subjective evaluations of health – for which the effect consistently appeared – as well as objective health measures such as the number of doctoral diagnoses and medical test results. For the objective measures, the effect only showed for health problems that perceivably constrained subjects’ lives: For example, if a bad lung function keeps someone from climbing stairs and makes him or her dependent on others, this will more likely foster a cynical worldview than elevated blood pressure that might not noticeably impair quality of life.

So it is mainly perceived constraints and the related loss of personal control over one’s life that are responsible for the effect of illness on cynicism. The fact that cynicism in turn impairs people’s health may set off a vicious circle. However, stable social networks and a well-functioning institutional support might possibly be factors suitable to break this vicious circle.