We recently talked to Olga Stavrova about her paper, "Broken bodies, broken spirits: How poor health contributes to a cynical worldview", which has recently appeared in the January/February issue of EJP. Olga is an assistant professor at Tilburg University, the Netherlands.
Read more about the study below!
Q: Hey Olga! Can you tell us a little about yourself and what you do?
I’m assistant professor of social psychology at Tilburg University in the Netherlands. Most of my work is in the intersection of social and personality research. To give some examples, I study the interplay of individual (e.g., personality, worldviews) and contextual (national or regional characteristics; situational constraints; one’s immediate social environment, such as the personality of one’s romantic partner) characteristics in shaping individuals’ behavior and life outcomes. I run online and laboratory experiments, do secondary analyses of cross-national and panel surveys, collect novel longitudinal and intensive longitudinal data, do dyadic and linguistic analysis.
Q: Can you tell us about your study?
Our study explored longitudinal associations between cynicism and physical health. Cynicism describes individual differences in general beliefs about other people’s character and human nature more broadly. Cynical individuals hold a dim view of human nature, believing that people are inherently selfish and untrustworthy and that self-interest is the driving force behind all human actions, even the seemingly good ones. Cynicism has a long history in medical psychology and epidemiology, with dozens of studies linking higher levels of cynicism with poor health and premature mortality. In fact, this literature often describes cynicism as a major “psychosocial risk factor” for morbidity and mortality.
Together with Daniel Ehlebracht from the University of Cologne, we wondered whether poor health might be not only a consequence but also a source of cynicism. Existing longitudinal studies have shown cynicism to predict health deterioration over time. However, none of these studies examined the reverse causal pathway: Does poor health contribute to cynicism development as well? From a theoretical standpoint, this assumption makes sense. Health problems typically impose restrictions on individuals’ life, including physical activity limitations and an increased dependence on others, often undermining one’s ability to exert control over the course of one’s life. The feeling of being out of control and at other people’s mercy might increase one’s perceived vulnerability and activate self-protection strategies, including suspiciousness and hostility, ultimately fostering the development of a cynical worldview.
We tested this idea using two large datasets: one panel study of German adults (3 waves separated by 5-year time lags) and another panel study of the American elderly (2 waves separated by a 4-year time lag). We used self-reported as well as objective indicators (e.g., hand grip strength, lung function test) of physical health, and both standard cross-lagged and, when possible, cross-lagged models with random intercepts that disentangle between- from within-individuals effects.
In brief, our results showed that cynicism was associated with declining health and poor health was associated with increasing levels of cynicism over time. In fact, the prospective effect of health on cynicism was more stable against different controls and more consistent across the numerous health indicators we used than the reversed causal path that has been the focus of medical research so far. Furthermore, longitudinal mediation analyses showed that the prospective effect of poor health on cynicism was mediated by a sense of perceived constraints that some health limitations typically bring about. Finally, additional analyses showed that any particular health limitation was prospectively related to cynicism, to the degree to which this limitation was associated with an increased sense of constraints in individuals’ life. Overall, our results show that poor health might represent a risk factor for developing undesirable personality traits, such as a cynical view of human nature.
Q: How did you become interested in the topic of cynicism?
I watched too much Dr. House and House of Cards. Both shows’ main characters are prototypically cynical – they assume the worst of human nature, believing that everybody would lie, cheat and betray if that promoted their interests. It seemed to me that cynicism was on the rise in TV shows. I started wondering how about real life? Do most people think that human behavior is mainly driven by self-interest? Is holding a cynical view of others adaptive or damaging? How are cynical people perceived by others? What consequences does cynicism have for individuals and their close ones? Are some people just born cynics or is there something that makes them turn to cynicism during the course of their life? It turned out that cynicism has been studied in medical psychology (as cynical hostility), cross-cultural psychology (as social cynicism), organizational science (as organizational cynicism) and sociology (as social trust). Yet, the disciplines that, as one would assume, should be naturally interested in cynicism – social and personality psychology, have not shown much interest in this concept so far, leaving many of the questions listed above unanswered. So, I set out to try to answer some of those questions.
Q: If you could go back in time and give yourself advice as a graduate student, what advice would you give?
Don’t be too cynical. Most people are trustworthy and will not try to screw you over.