Cynicism is an attitude or state of mind characterized by a general distrust of others' motives. A cynic may have a general lack of faith or hope in the human species or people motivated by ambition, desire, greed, gratification, materialism, goals, and opinions that a cynic perceives as vain, unobtainable, or ultimately meaningless and therefore deserving of ridicule or admonishment. A common misapplication of this attitude involves its attribution to individuals who emote well-thought-out expressions of skepticism. Such miscategorization may occur as the result of either inexperience and/or a belief system in which the innate goodness of man is considered an important tenet or even an irrefutable fact. Thus, contemporary usage incorporates both a form of jaded prudence and (when misapplied) realistic criticism or skepticism. The term originally derives from the ancient Greek philosophers, the Cynics, who rejected all conventions, whether of religion, manners, housing, dress, or decency, instead advocating the pursuit of virtue in accordance with a simple and idealistic way of life.
By the 19th century, emphasis on the ascetic ideals and the critique of current civilization based on how it might fall short of an ideal civilization or negativistic aspects of Cynic philosophy led the modern understanding of cynicism to mean a disposition of disbelief in the sincerity or goodness of human motives and actions. Modern cynicism is a distrust toward professed ethical and social values, especially when there are high expectations concerning society, institutions, and authorities that are unfulfilled. It can manifest itself as a result of frustration, disillusionment, and distrust perceived as owing to organizations, authorities, and other aspects of society.
Modern cynicism has been defined as an attitude of distrust toward claimed ethical and social values and a rejection of the need to be socially involved. It is pessimistic in regards to the capacity of human beings to make correct ethical choices, and one antonym is naiveté. Modern cynicism is sometimes regarded as a product of mass society, especially in those circumstances where the individual believes there is a conflict between society's stated motives and goals and actual motives and goals.
It has been claimed that "healthy skepticism may have given way to corrosive cynicism". Cynicism regarding government or politics can logically lead to political withdrawal and effective political helplessness. In 2013 conservative politician and political theorist William J. Bennett warned that America could "crumble from within; that we would become cynical and withdraw."
A 2004 experiment and paper called The Effects of Strategic News on Political Cynicism, Issue Evaluations, and Policy Support: A Two-Wave Experiment found that the way the news media presents the news can cause political cynicism. The experiment also demonstrated; "a negative relation between efficacy and cynicism suggesting that efficacious citizens were less likely to be cynical about politics." It was found that straight dry, "issues-based" news did not cause political cynicism, but that "Strategic News" and "game news" did. The latter two types of news presentation emphasize:
Social cynicism results from high expectations concerning society, institutions and authorities: unfulfilled expectations leads to disillusionment, which releases feelings of disappointment and betrayal.
In organizations, cynicism manifests itself as a general or specific attitude, characterized by frustration, hopelessness, disillusionment and distrust in regard to economic or governmental organizations, managers and/or other aspects of work.
Cynicism can appear more active in depression. In his bestselling Critique of Cynical Reason (1983), Peter Sloterdijk defined modern cynics as "borderline melancholics, who can keep their symptoms of depression under control and yet retain the ability to work, whatever might happen ... indeed, this is the essential point in modern cynicism: the ability of its bearers to work—in spite of anything that might happen."
One active aspect of cynicism involves the desire to expose hypocrisy and to point out gaps between ideals and practices. George Bernard Shaw allegedly expressed this succinctly: "The power of accurate observation is commonly called cynicism by those who don't have it".
A study published in Neurology journal in 2014 found a link between "cynical distrust" (defined as the belief that others are mainly motivated by selfish concerns) and dementia. The survey included 622 people who were tested for dementia for a period of 8 years. In that period, 46 people were diagnosed with dementia. "Once researchers adjusted for other factors that could affect dementia risk, such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol and smoking, people with high levels of cynical distrust were three times more likely to develop dementia than people with low levels of cynicism. Of the 164 people with high levels of cynicism, 14 people developed dementia, compared to nine of the 212 people with low levels of cynicism."