Are  Suspicious People  Smarter?

The cynics may not be the sharpest after all.

By Matt Huston, published November 6, 2018 - last reviewed on January 19, 2019

Maria Loginova/Shutterstock
Maria Loginova/Shutterstock

In fiction, the cleverest characters often have a dim view of humanity. A recent paper suggests that people may buy into the idea that cynicism and smarts go together—even though there’s little evidence to support the notion.

Psychologists Olga Stavrova and Daniel Ehlebracht asked study participants whether it was better to assign various tasks to a cynic—who believed, for example, that people are “selfish rather than altruistic” and “generally cannot be trusted”—or someone with the opposite views. For cognitively demanding tasks, especially math- and logic-related ones, the cynic was more likely to get the job. Stavrova, at Tilburg University, speculates that people might take a cue from “semantic similarities between the ability to calculate numbers and the ability to calculate whether somebody is going to exploit you.”

A look at large-scale survey data from Germany, however, indicates that if anything, less cynical people have the cognitive advantage. Cynical belief endorsement was modestly associated with lower scores on measures of intelligence and an index of competence that included math and literacy skills. It was also linked to lower levels of education and income, replicating previous findings. Data from 30 countries show similar results, although—logically, perhaps—even highly competent people espouse cynical ideas more in nations that are rated as more lawless and corrupt.

Why less cynical people might tend to be smarter isn’t yet known. Someone with high levels of intelligence and education may face fewer hardships in life, resulting in more positive views about others. Another idea raised by the researchers: For people with lower cognitive ability, a wariness of others’ motives may serve as a defense against being taken in.