Naïve Cynicism

What is Naïve Cynicism?

Naïve Cynicism is the tendency of laypeople to expect other people’s judgments will have a motivational basis and therefore will be biased in the direction of their self-interest. We expect that others will see things in ways that are most flattering to them, while thinking that our own opinions and beliefs are based on objective evidence.

Contexts and Importance

Naïve cynicism is the counterpart to naïve realism, the belief on the part of laypeople that they see the world as it really is. Although we often don’t believe that the judgments we make are biased, we readily recognize that others’ judgments may be.

Naïve cynicism may even lead people to overestimate the amount of bias in other people’s judgments. For example, husbands and wives are known to overestimate their responsibility for household tasks, giving individual estimates that add up to more than 100%; it can’t be possible that Mr. Smith washes the dishes 60% of the time while Mrs. Smith washes them 70% of the time.

A woman might expect that her husband will overestimate how much he should take credit for positive events and underestimate how much he is to blame for negative events; he might expect the same of her. However, because of the accessibility of their own participation in both positive and negative events, they will each tend to overestimate how much they are responsible for both good and bad things, meaning their partners will have cynical views of their beliefs and vice versa.

Viewing the other person as part of your ingroup or at least as working in cooperation with you may attenuate this belief; for instance, the happier a married couple was, the less likely they were to show cynical beliefs about each other’s judgments. We may be especially likely to be naively cynical when the other person has a vested interest in the judgment at hand, but if that person is a dispassionate observer, we expect that he or she will see things the way we do (the way things “really are”), not biased toward his or her own beliefs.

Naïve cynicism extends to many of the basic heuristics Opens in new window and biases studied in social psychology Opens in new window; people think that others are prone to commit the fundamental attribution error Opens in new window, the false consensus effect Opens in new window, and self-enhancement bias.

Naïve cynicism is related to the norm of self-interest. Many intellectual fields, such as classical economics and evolutionary biology, stress how their theories indicate that people should always act in self-interested ways. This emphasis reflects and helps maintain a social license to act in one’s self-interest, and, more importantly, to believe that others will too, even though people are often inclined to behave in a cooperative, empathetic, or altruistic manner.