Victims, perpetrators, or both? The vicious cycle of disrespect and cynical beliefs about human nature

Olga Stavrova, Daniel Ehlebracht, Kathleen D. Vohs

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

22 Scopus citations


We tested how cynicism emerges and what maintains it. Cynicism is the tendency to believe that people are morally bankrupt and behave treacherously to maximize self-interest. Drawing on literatures on norms of respectful treatment, we proposed that being the target of disrespect gives rise to cynical views, which predisposes people to further disrespect. The end result is a vicious cycle: cynicism and disrespect fuel one another. Study 1's nationally representative survey showed that disrespect and cynicism are positively related to each other in 28 of 29 countries studied, and that cynicism's associations with disrespect were independent of (and stronger than) associations with lacking social support. Study 2 used a nationally representative longitudinal dataset, spanning 4 years. In line with the vicious cycle hypothesis, feeling disrespected and holding cynical views gave rise to each other over time. Five preregistered experiments (including 2 in the online supplemental materials) provided causal evidence. Study 3 showed that bringing to mind previous experiences of being disrespected heightened cynical beliefs subsequently. Studies 4 and 5 showed that to the extent that people endorsed cynical beliefs, others were inclined to treat them disrespectfully. Study 6's weeklong daily diary study replicated the vicious cycle pattern. Everyday experiences of disrespect elevated cynical beliefs and vice versa. Moreover, cynical individuals tended to treat others with disrespect, which in turn predicted more disrespectful treatment by others. In short, experiencing disrespect gives rise to cynicism and cynicism elicits disrespect from others, thereby reinforcing the worldview that caused these negative reactions in the first place.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1736-1754
Number of pages19
JournalJournal of Experimental Psychology: General
Issue number9
StatePublished - Sep 2020

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2020 American Psychological Association.


  • Bidirectional effects
  • Cynicism
  • Disrespect
  • Hostility
  • Humans
  • Middle Aged
  • Respect
  • Social Support
  • Male
  • Affect
  • Human Characteristics
  • Adult
  • Female
  • Aged
  • Culture

PubMed: MeSH publication types

  • Journal Article


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