What Lies Behind the Mask of Cynicism?

Cynical behavior isn’t intelligent behavior. Behind it lies hostility and distrust. It’s the attitude displayed by those who don’t hesitate in hurting others with criticism and aggression.
What Lies Behind the Mask of Cynicism?
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by the psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 15 November, 2021

Cynical people often pride themselves on their sharp skepticism. Indeed, they’re experts in the art of distrust. They address others with a mixture of irony and contempt, thinking that they’re being extremely witty. However, cynicism is unhealthy and disrespectful.

You might think of a cynical person and a sarcastic one in the same way. Undoubtedly, both traits involve mockery, offensiveness, and sharp criticism in order to undermine another person. Interestingly, some people consider cynicism quite appealing. That’s because cynics tend to be rather creative in their use of language.

Nevertheless, both cynicism and sarcasm are aggressive forms of communication. In fact, if there’s one thing that personality psychology has taught us, it’s that behind certain kinds of behavior (like cynicism and sarcasm) lurk feelings of bitterness, defiant negativism, low motivation, dissatisfaction, and even hatred. Furthermore, on occasions, these behaviors may hide a mental disorder.

“A  cynic is a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.”

 -Oscar Wilde-


What lies behind the mask of cynicism?

The terms cynical and cynicism derive from the Greek root “kuõn”, which means dog. It originates from a group of philosophers of 4th century BC, who called themselves the Cynics. Their leader was the Athenian, Antisthenes (446-366 BC). Their school of thought extolled a humble lifestyle linked with nature. Furthermore, they rejected conventions like money, politics, and social norms.

Diogenes took up this philosophical approach. Plato once called him “Socrates gone mad”. Among his aspirations was the goal to live life like a dog. In other words, a life that was simple, humble, instinctive, and linked to nature itself.

Surprisingly, cynicism spread throughout the Roman Empire. At one point, it even rivaled Stoicism. This was the philosophical school of thought that advocated self-control, strength, and clarity of thought.

However, the most modern version of the term didn’t arrive until the 18th century. At this time, they began to use it to describe an attitude that questioned every norm and every ethical and social value.

Furthermore, they added another component, the offensive one. Since then, a cynical person has been seen as one who uses contempt to violate, criticize, or disparage the behavior or intentions of others. Let’s find out what else lies behind this kind of personality.

A mask, suggesting the mask of cynicism.

Cynical people are disappointed idealists

We can safely say that we all have a little bit of a cynic inside us. In fact, cynicism falls on a spectrum. Some people exhibit just a touch, while others present a chronic and highly negative form.

Occasionally, you might exhibit cynicism when you’re disappointed with something or someone and you make a critical comment. For example, you might do it when you talk about politics or politicians, showing your general distrust of the establishment.

Cynicism can be healthy sometimes and toxic at others. Toxic cynicism is seen in those people who are always on the defensive and are extremely critical. They’re also easily disappointed. This is because they’re defending a form of utopian idealism.

The cynic and self-centered distrust

Distrust is the watchword of the cynic. They’re touchy, skeptical, prickly, and contemptuous. Nevertheless, these behaviors are clearly defense mechanisms. They allow the cynic to separate themselves both from others and from their own unhealthy form of egocentrism.

In addition, cynics are so focused on their own words that they don’t care about other people’s criticism of them. This means that cynicism often goes hand in hand with asocial behavior.

They aren’t afraid of offending

Greek historians say that when Alexander the Great met Diogenes, he wanted to grant him a wish. He asked Diogenes what he desired. Diogenes replied by simply asking the King to move out of the way because he was stealing the sunshine.

Cynical people aren’t afraid of offending others with their comments. Furthermore, they’re often adept at rather wittily humiliating and criticizing others.

Alexander the Great and Diogenes.

Chronic cynicism and dementia

This fact is as curious as it’s important. Dr. Elisa Nuevovoen from Stockholm University conducted a study that suggested that people who exhibit hostile and cynical behaviors tend to age in an adverse way. Indeed, they have more health problems and an increased risk of dementia.

Dr. Hilary Tindle, Professor of Medicine at the University of Pittsburgh, points out another relevant factor. She discovered, in her clinical practice, that people who exhibit hostility and cynicism have a tendency to be linked with greater health disorders. Moreover, these people had the worst kinds of lifestyles and were those most reluctant to follow medical advice.

However, Dr. Tindle also suggests that cynical people have the opportunity to change. In fact, they’re perfectly capable of altering their defensive, negative, and distrustful attitudes.

It seems that, no matter how old the person is, with adequate help and support, they can change. Consequently, this will have a positive impact on their health. We really do need to remember that life is far too short to wear the unpleasant mask of cynicism.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

    • Neuvonen, E., Rusanen, M., Solomon, A., Ngandu, T., Laatikainen, T., Soininen, H., … Tolppanen, A. M. (2014). Late-life cynical distrust, risk of incident dementia, and mortality in a population-based cohort. Neurology82(24), 2205–2212. https://doi.org/10.1212/WNL.0000000000000528

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.