Cynicism – bad for the brain?

It has already been found that a cynical outlook is linked to heart disease. Now, research shows that people with high levels of cynicism in later life are also more likely to develop dementia.

Cynicism and Health

Dementia is a brain disease that gradually robs a person of intellectual abilities – memory, knowledge, thinking, language – which severely impacts their ability to function in daily life. The risk of dementia increases with age, and as more people are living longer, dementia is becoming more common.

According to a study published in the medical journal Neurology (May 2014),those with a high degree of cynicism in later life are much more likely to develop dementia than those with more positive attitudes.

The researchers, based at the University of Eastern Finland in Kuopio, began their study back in 1998.

At that time, a group of 1,449 elderly people had been asked to rate their agreement with statements such as “I think people would lie to get ahead”, or “it is safer to trust nobody”. This rating scale (known as the Cook-Medley scale) was used as a measure of each person’s cynical distrust. Based on their rating responses, the volunteers could be divided into three sub-groups: High, Moderate or Low Cynical Distrust.

The same volunteers also underwent a test for dementia, which served as a baseline for later comparison.

A decade later, about a third of the original group had died. Of those remaining, 622 underwent a second dementia test.

The results showed that 9 per cent of the 164 people in the High Cynical Distrust group had been newly diagnosed with dementia, compared with just 4 per cent of the 212 people in the Low Cynical Distrust group. This was after adjusting for other factors such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and smoking.

According to the study’s lead researcher, Dr. Anna-Maija Tolppanen:

“These results add to the evidence that people’s view on life and personality may have an impact on their health. Understanding how a personality trait like cynicism affects risk for dementia might provide us with important insights on how to reduce risks for dementia.”

What’s with the attitude?


Cynicism is often characterised by:

  • A dismissive or contemptuous attitude towards other people’s beliefs, ideals, hopes and values.
  • A tendency to believe only the worst about people, such as believing that everyone is basically devious, untrustworthy, and motivated purely by selfishness.
  • Criticism openly expressed in the form of distrust, fault-finding and mockery.Pessimistic expectations — the most likely outcome of any situation is the opposite of what everyone else is hoping for.

You might well think, that all sounds a bit ugly and negative. Who would adopt an attitude like that? Any why?


To answer the first question, famous cynics include Niccolò Machiavelli, Sigmund Freud, Bette Davis, James Cagney, Charles Manson, Bob Dylan, Joan Rivers, and Oliver Stone. Also, the British TV news presenter Jeremy Paxman, whose face says it all →

And to answer the second question:

We each see and interpret the world through a “mental lens” by which we make consistent sense of ourselves, others, and life in general. This way of thinking is known as our Attitude, and it is one of the defining components of our personality make-up.

There are seven basic Attitudes and each of us adopts one as our primary point of view: Realism, Idealism, Spiritualism, Stoicism, Pragmatism, Skepticism and Cynicism.

Cynicism?  Yeah, right… Whatever.

Cynicism, in the most neutral sense, is simply a way of perceiving that is in direct opposition to falsehood and untruth.

But this often means openly challenging the consensus, rejecting assumptions held by the “common herd”.

Like the goal of Rejection, the attitude of Cynicism is defiantly individualistic and confrontational — which is hard work for those on the receiving end. Cynics see it as their duty to thrust their cold, sharp minds into the soft, warm hearts of those who aren’t thinking straight.

And while Idealists will automatically hope for agreement, progress and positive outcomes, Cynics can all-too-quickly leap into disagreement and criticism, killing any enthusiasm for a project. It is almost as if they are allergic to agreeing with any positive consensus.

But, there is also an upside to cynicism. Like all traits, the Attitude of Cynicism has two poles, one positive and one negative, just like an electrical field.


Notice that a positive pole flows energy out while a negative pole draws energy in … or sucks!

Most of what I have described above reflects the negative pole of cynicism, which can be summarised in one word: DENIGRATION, the unduly harsh criticism and distrust of others. But the positive pole of Cynicism is offering valid and intelligent criticisms in the name of truth. This can be described as CONTRADICTION, as in providing contradictory evidence or a counter-argument that will demolish a false claim.

My guess is that the heart and brain disease effects associated with “cynical distrust” are reflections of the negative pole of Cynicism (Denigration), while those who are cynical in later life in a more positive sense (Contradiction) are likely to be less affected, if at all.

Incidentally, some countries have cynicism as their “national attitude”. These include Scotland, England, Sweden, Norway, and Israel.


Article: ‘Late-life cynical distrust, risk of incident dementia, and mortality in a population-based cohort.’

Authors: Elisa Neuvonen, Minna Rusanen, MD, PhD, Alina Solomon, MD, PhD, Tiia Ngandu, MD, PhD, Tiina Laatikainen, MD, PhD, Hilkka Soininen, MD, PhD, Miia Kivipelto, MD, PhD and Anna-Maija Tolppanen, PhD.

Journal: Neurology, vol. 82 (issue 24), pp. 2205-2212.

Date: June 17, 2014


It’s worth pointing out that the study has found a correlation between cynical distrust and dementia in the elderly, but correlation does not prove causation. In other words, we don’t yet know if it’s the attitude that causes the disease. — barry

For an argument in favour of cynicism, see:

Cynicism From Diogenes To Dilbert

If you yourself are so cynical that you would never read a self-help book, try this one:

How to Be Happy, Dammit: A Cynic’s Guide to Spiritual Happiness

For a spiritual insight into cynicism, see:

Beyond Cynicism

7 thoughts on “Cynicism – bad for the brain?

  1. That which does not kill us makes us stronger.

    Friedrich Nietzsche Cynical personalities do a lot for a spiritual development of mankind.If cynicism negatively affects the brain then we should respect cynics for their sacrifices!

    • That which does not kill us makes us stronger.

      Chronic fatigue syndrome must be an exception to the rule. Hasn’t killed me yet but left me an effin’ lot weaker, I can tell you.

      b 🙂

  2. My father and my uncle both ranked over-the-top on the cynicism scale, yet the both lived in good health and sharp mind til their late 80s. The study cited suggests a correlation, but not causation. I would go one step further, and wonder whether the correlation will not be observed in subsequent studies. Does that make me cynical 😉 ?

    • Actually, no, it makes you skeptical. You distrust (question the validity of) something that seems unlikely.

      A cynic, however, distrusts whatever seems meaningful, since the meaning attributed to this or that is often a “motivated construct” – something made up by a person or culture to further their own agenda – rather than a simple fact.

      To support your skepticism, though, I might also add that the results (9% vs. 4%) are not exactly stunning.


  3. Hmm. I used to be very energized and optimistic. But since doing so much research into the way money works in the world, I have become extraordinarily cynical. I have also been reading about the Panama papers and well, that has just put me over the top. I realize that there are more good people than bad in the world, but I’m having some challenges harnessing my optimism and positive energy. I would have chosen the words dominance, passion and idealistic from the overleaves chart when I was in my 20s. But now in my 40s, I was drawn to submission, perseverance and cynical. I will continue reading your material because I would like to move to a new position of acceptance, perseverance and spiritual because that is where the answer lies! Thank you for all of this hard work that you have posted.

    • The thing with being an idealist (and I’m one myself) is that we keep seeing how life does NOT live up to our ideals. If we focus too much on what’s currently wrong (not ideal), we can lose sight of our own optimistic vision of how right things could/should be (the ideal). So the thing is to re-focus. “So if this is the current state of things, this ugly mess we are in, then what is the best alternative? Where should we be headed that would be better for all? Let’s define a new standard that we can all agree to.” Make it very clear and explicit. Hold and share your vision of the better alternative.

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