WACO, Texas — It can be hard to get cynics to believe anything you say, especially when it comes to health. Whether they believe or not, a new study finds cynical people are more likely to develop heart disease. Researchers from Baylor University in Texas say those with more cynical hostility have a poor time responding to stress, making them vulnerable to the world’s number one cause of death.
“Cynical hostility is more cognitive, consisting of negative beliefs, thoughts and attitudes about other people’s motives, intentions and trustworthiness,” says lead author Alexandra T. Tyra, a doctoral candidate in psychology and neuroscience, in a university release. “It can be considered suspiciousness, lack of trust or cynical beliefs about others.”
“These findings reveal that a greater tendency to engage in cynical hostility — which appears to be extremely relevant in today’s political and health climate — can be harmful not only for our short-term stress responses but also our long-term health,” Tyra adds.
Cynicism comes in many forms
Researchers consider chronic anger as emotional hostility, while verbal or physical aggression is more behavioral. Expressions of cynicism come in a variety of forms, from refusing to follow social distancing rules during the COVID-19 pandemic to believing the results of U.S. presidential election are fraudulent.
“The increased risk of hostility is likely due to heightened physiological arousal to psychological stress, which can strain the cardiovascular system over time,” Tyra explains. “However, there has been a need for research to examine these physiological responses across multiple stress exposures to better resemble real-world conditions and assess adaptation over time.”
As cynics struggle to manage their stress, previous studies reveal how stress can be as harmful to the body as obesity, smoking, or high cholesterol. A healthy response would consist of an immediate reaction to stressful stimuli, sometimes referred to as the “fight or flight” response. This reaction decreases as a person encounters that same stressor more times during their life.
“Essentially, when you’re exposed to the same thing multiple times, the novelty of that situation wears off, and you don’t have as big of a response as you did the first time,” the Baylor researcher adds. “This is a healthy response. But our study demonstrates a higher tendency for cynical hostility may prevent or inhibit this decrease in response over time. In other words, the cardiovascular system responds similarly to a second stressor as it did to the first. This is unhealthy because it places increased strain on our cardiovascular system over time.”
Is being a cynic worse than being emotional or aggressive?
The study examined 196 participants during two lab experiments over a seven-week period. The sessions involved stress tests lasting 15 and 20 minutes each. The group also completed a standard psychological scale to measure personality and temperament. Specifically, researchers measured the degree of hostility that reveals an individual’s tendency towards cynicism and chronic hate.
In the psychological stress portion of the study, participants had five minutes to create a five-minute speech to defend themselves against some suspected wrongdoing, such as a traffic violation or shoplifting.
The volunteers then performed a five-minute mental arithmetic test, which varied slightly during each visit. The team recorded each person’s heart rate and blood pressure every two minutes during each phase.
Finally, the participants answered a 20-item hostility survey. Statements such as “people often disappoint me” peered into the person’s emotional state. “I would certainly enjoy beating a crook at his or her own game” connected to aggression and “I think most people would lie to get ahead” tied closely to cynicism. Only responses that reflected cynicism showed a link to stress responses.
“This does not imply that emotional and behavioral hostility are not bad for you, just that they may affect your health or well-being in other ways,” Tyra says.
Defending against the world’s deadliest disease
Study authors believe future research examining cynical hostility during youth and its health implications later in life will be helpful for older adults at risk for a heart attack.
“I would hope that this research raises awareness about the potential health implications of cynicism,” Tyra concludes. “Perhaps the next time someone thinks a negative thought about the motives, intentions or trustworthiness of their best friend, a co-worker or even a politician, they will think twice about actively engaging with that thought.”
Earlier this year, a study of 2,300 heart attack survivors in the U.S. discovered that those who displayed sarcasm and cynicism are at much greater risk of dying of a second attack within two years. Heart and circulatory diseases are the biggest causes of death worldwide, claiming about 18 million lives each year.
The study is published in the journal Psychophysiology.
SWNS writer Mark Waghorn contributed to this report.