Cynical vs. Skeptical: What’s the Difference?

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Skepticism and cynicism are two ways to view information and events. They both refer to a way of thinking that challenges ideas and considers underlying motives in the actions of others. Despite their similarities, skepticism and cynicism are two completely different concepts. Embracing one or the other can dramatically impact how you view the world around you.

Learn more about the differences between cynicism and skepticism, and when you should employ each one. Both ideas are valuable when you know when to use them.

What Is Cynicism?

In the modern era, the Cambridge Dictionary defines a cynic as someone who “believes that people are only interested in themselves.” They challenge the motives of every person and the actions they pursue. For example, a cynic might believe that a man who jumps into a frozen lake to save a drowning child only does it for the glory and praise of others. 

The cynics have their roots in ancient Greece and were a group of people who focused on living a virtuous life while communing with nature. They called out corruption in the temples and government, believing people were motivated by taking from others to benefit themselves.

What Is Skepticism?

Britannica defines skepticism as the process of “doubting knowledge claims.” People who are skeptics often challenge ideas and beliefs instead of accepting them at face value. They might question the source or how the person presenting the information came up with their conclusions. 

Knowledge and justification are two of the tools that skeptics use. They tap into prior experiences to evaluate whether new information is valid, while also considering how someone might justify their ideas or actions.

The History of Skepticism and Cynicism

Skepticism and cynicism have their roots in ancient Greece. The cynics came from the followers of Socrates, while the skeptics came from Pyrrho of Elis (c. 360–270 BCE). While Pyrrho was considered the first skeptic, his philosophical school of thought lasted more than two centuries. The name cynic translates to “dog-like” and was given to Diogenes of Sinope and his followers because they lived like stray dogs. They slept outside and rummaged through dumpsters for food. This was not intended to be a flattering nickname.  

Today, the concepts of skepticism and cynicism are used in modern vernacular, though few people remember their origins with the ancient thinkers. 

What Are the Differences Between Skeptics and Cynics?

In an article for the Columbia Journalism Review, Merrill Perlman says that journalists are supposed to be skeptical but not cynical. He goes on to explain that, “Both effectively mean to be questioning of facts or motives. But one comes from the point of view of an open mind, and the other from a closed mind.” This is a great summation of the differences between skeptics and cynics. 

Skeptics question information but are open to new ideas and beliefs. They can be won over if an idea is presented logically and with clear evidence. Modern cynics, on the other hand, take a more closed-minded approach. They are less likely to believe new ideas and will question the motives of anyone who presents them. 

Perlman believes that unhealthy levels of skepticism can lead to cynicism and will prevent people from considering new ideas.

Cynicism and Skepticism Today

Both cynicism and skepticism can be found in modern American society. For example, a growing distrust in government leaders has made people cynical about the political process. When an elected official presents a bill to Congress, people often point out how that individual or party will benefit from the bill, not the actual benefits to society itself. 

Meanwhile, a skepticism that verges on cynicism can be found in how Americans view the media. A recent study by Pew Research found that 53% of respondents think the media doesn’t care about the people they report on. Additionally, 39% of people believe news organizations are not professional. When asked about this skepticism, 63% of respondents believe being skeptical of news media is good for society.

Skepticism about the media could be a good thing if it prevents the spread of misinformation. When people are cautious about where they get their news from and the potential bias that comes with it, they can catch fake news stories or poorly researched journalism.

Skepticism in Science

Skepticism is also essential in the field of scientific research. Skepticism involves suspending judgment, which allows researchers to consider all possible factors and solutions when forming ideas. This is a key part of analytical thinking, which is a valuable tool for helping scientists reach their conclusions.

A good example of this is the idea that correlation does not equal causation. Just because two or more things coincide does not mean they’re related or one causes the other. For example, the number of sunburns increases during the summer months, which is also when more people eat ice cream. A researcher who isn’t skeptical about causation might conclude that ice cream causes sunburns.

Skepticism vs. Cynicism: Which Is Better?

While there is value in practicing both skepticism and cynicism in moderation, embracing a cynical mindset can negatively impact your attitudes in life and your overall well-being. If you are going to hone one way of thinking, it is often better to be skeptical rather than cynical. This is because skepticism allows you to have an open mind to embrace new ideas, while cynicism is more closed-minded. 

The Dangers of a Cynical Mindset 

There are multiple psychological and physical reasons to avoid developing a cynical mindset. First, cynicism is often developed because of hurt or betrayal. It is a negative reaction rather than a proactive mindset. Dr. Bruce Hutchinson, author of “Emotions Don’t Think,” says distrust turns into pessimism which evolves into cynicism.  

Toxic mindsets can have physical effects on the human body. Dr. Hutchinson highlights how high levels of cynicism can cause depression and negative health outcomes like an increased risk of heart attack, obesity, cancer, and dementia. This is because your body produces more stress hormones instead of endorphins and chemicals that help you heal. 

Avoiding a cynical mindset can protect your mental health while also supporting your body as you age. 

The Benefits of a Skeptical Mindset

While cynicism comes with multiple dangers, skepticism has several benefits. A skeptical mind is a core part of critical thinking. It allows you to question ideas, expectations, and conclusions. You can challenge the status quo and come up with better solutions that make life easier and more enjoyable. A skeptical mind can also make you less gullible, which means you’re less likely to fall for fake news and scams

Finally, living a skeptical lifestyle will open up new ideas and ways of thinking. You might shed old beliefs as you learn new things. By challenging what you currently think and exploring different ideas, you can continue to grow into a well-rounded person. 

When you engage with information, evaluate how your mind perceives the news or content. Consider whether you are a cynical thinker, a skeptical thinker, or a natural believer. Transitioning toward a skeptical mindset can better prepare you to live in the modern world.

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