Do Cynics Make Less Money?

If you want to make more money, stop questioning your colleagues’ ulterior motives and concentrate on trust.

Do Cynics Make Less Money?
[Photo: Flickr user Eric]

It’s human nature to pay bad behavior forward. Think about it: When was the last time someone was a jerk to you, and you turned around and let someone else have it? In the workplace, it can go viral. But it turns out that just thinking that others are mean or deceitful can have a big impact on your paycheck.


New research published by the American Psychological Association indicates that cynicism could have a negative effect on your income over time.

The researchers for this study were prompted by a plethora of previous studies that linked cynicism to poor outcomes in the workplace. Having faith in people as an overall attitude has been connected to better physical health and psychological well-being, for example. Cynical hostility has, not surprisingly, been found to have a negative impact on an individual’s commitment to their organization.

Another study found a correlation between cynicism and a lack of job satisfaction. And even competitive Machiavellian cynics have been found not to strive for excellence, which results in lower performance in most organizations, higher work-related stress, and counterproductive behaviors.

However, there wasn’t much evidence to show that cynicism was connected to money on an individual level–until now, according to Olga Stavrova and Daniel Ehlebracht of the University of Cologne in Germany.

Testing the “more subtle mechanism” at play included finding out if the following traits go hand in hand with cynicism:

  • Uncooperative
  • Unwilling to compromise
  • Refusing to collaborate
  • Would indeed be less likely to reap the economic rewards that grow out of asking for help and joint efforts

To see if it was possible to predict income based on cynical attitudes, survey data was drawn from studies done previously in the U.S. and Europe. The first two measured Americans’ responses to a questionnaire and their income level at a later date. Those respondents exhibiting higher than average cynicism had lower incomes.

Measuring the results of 16,000 people in Germany over nine years had similar results. Low-level cynics earned $300 per month more on average than the haters.

The researchers didn’t stop there. In a final study to see if society had an influence on cynical attitudes, they examined data from 41 countries in 2008 using the World Giving Index from the Charities Aid Foundation, and from answering true or false to statements such as, “To care about societal affairs only brings trouble for yourself,” or “Kindhearted people are easily bullied.”

Overall, not only did cynics earn less money, but the countries that had less crime and more altruistic behavior overall displayed the widest earnings gap.

Of course, there were some exceptions among countries that had an abundance of antisocial behavior. Estonia and Georgia, for instance, had high homicide rates and topped the list for pervasive cynicism. As a way of life, cynicism was necessary, and therefore not penalized financially.


But in the average workplace, cynicism undermines future financial success in a variety of ways, the researchers found. In the paper, they write:

Employees who believe others to be exploitative and dishonest are likely to avoid collaborative projects and forgo the related opportunities. In dealing with others, cynical individuals might be likely to over invest resources on protecting themselves from potential deceit.

Cynical individuals are more likely to spend more time “covering their backs” and less time focusing on their jobs. Cynical managers might be less likely to trust their subordinates and are more likely to over invest in control and supervision, which may consequently jeopardize their business success in the long run.

The bottom line, according to Stavrova and Ehlebracht:

“Overcoming cynical beliefs and building faith in humanity can help us enhance our financial well-being (by reaping the fruits of mutual cooperation and joint efforts) under most circumstances and, even in the few sociocultural contexts that entail a heightened risk of deception and fraud, is unlikely to seriously damage our economic prosperity.”

About the author

Lydia Dishman is a reporter writing about the intersection of tech, leadership, and innovation. She is a regular contributor to Fast Company and has written for CBS Moneywatch, Fortune, The Guardian, Popular Science, and the New York Times, among others.