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Last Updated: Monday, 16 February 2004, 16:00 GMT
How did we get so cynical?
By Jonathan Duffy
BBC News Online Magazine

Cynicism graphic
Cynicism seems to have become the defining attitude of our time. This week the BBC News Online Magazine is asking where it comes from, who's damaged by it, and what next for a cynical society? First though - what made us into the cynical people we have become?

In another age, Matt Cole might have risked his life for Queen and country. Hundreds of thousands of young men of a similar background did just that in the last century, sometimes for reasons which make little sense in hindsight.

As it stands, Matt, 32, is not given to deference, which helps explain his response to one of the big questions of our time for new parents: MMR.

What, if anything, makes you cynical? Some of your views

"I didn't trust what the government was telling us," says Matt, referring to the decree that toddlers should undergo the triple vaccine, despite claims it is linked to autism.

Angry that the government had not thrown its weight behind an independent inquiry into the matter, he, like many parents nowadays, opted to pay for single vaccines.

"I'm a cynical person and things like this make me more so. The people are not in control."

Cynicism, it seems, is rife in today's society. Mistrust of big institutions - government, Parliament, the media and big business - is higher than in living memory.

Almost three-quarters of us tend not to trust politicians, according to pollsters Mori, although given the widespread distrust of journalists as well, you might prefer to check for yourself (see internet links, on the right of this page).

If trust continues to erode, some theorists predict a dismal future. Trust, it could be argued, is a cornerstone of civilised society. Without it we would hardly bother getting out of bed in the morning.

Sun front page
Those in the business of communicating have to engage an audience that presupposes you are lying, even when you are not
David Yelland, former editor of the Sun

How did we get so cynical?

Cynicism - the almost automatic belief that one is being lied to - is, of course, not new. Even 30 years ago, less than half of us (39%) trusted the government to put the public's needs above party political interests.

Yet since 1986, the figure has plunged almost inexorably. In 2000 it stood at just 16%, although it has recovered since to 25%. The culture of spin is widely seen as one of the factors in driving down public goodwill.

But it goes further than that. The so-called "spin committee" - an independent review set up by Downing Street last year - identified a three-way breakdown of trust between politicians, the media and the public.

And maybe further still...

Scholars such as Robert Putnam, author of the iconic Bowling Alone, believe the culture of individualism fostered in the 1980s has led people away from the informal social networks - such as neighbours talking to each other - that helped build trust between individuals.

Paul Skidmore, of the think-tank Demos, sees parallels between that view and our growing suspicion of government.

"The absence of long-term total war, during which people view the state as fundamental to their survival, has distanced us from it," he says.

Just a stance?

As a result, he says, we see less reason to trust it.

The same could well be said for our view of Brussels. Once seen as a device for smoothing Europe's historic tensions, and a bulwark of liberalism against communist Eastern Europe in the Cold War, its role is no longer so critically defined. Today, just 27% of Britons "trust" the EU.

Philosopher Onora O'Neill believes cynicism is our response to the information-rich era. Faced with a morass of information on anything from the Iraq war to which pension to buy into - information that few of us have the time to analyse - cynicism is the only realistic way of "interpreting" it all.

Yet she's tempted to see it as a convenient badge we wear rather than a deeply-held belief. "We are both a more cynical and a more credulous society," says Prof O'Neill, of Newnham College, Cambridge.

"People say they don't trust insurance companies, but faced with a policy full of small print which they don't have the ability to check and challenge, they sign it anyway," thereby entrusting themselves to the insurer.

According to Mori, there's a similar paradox in people's broadly-held cynical views about state health and education, and their more positive direct experience of it. Teachers and doctors consistently rank as among the most trusted professions.

The No Logo effect

Big companies too are having to weather widespread cynicism.

Recent literary best-sellers such as No Logo and Fast Food Nation have questioned what goes on behind the closed boardroom doors of multinationals that take our money. The current backlash against "junk food" and fizzy drinks makers is no coincidence.

In 1959, 56% of people felt, in general, most other people could be trusted
By 1980 it had fallen to 44%
And by 1997 to 29%
Sources: Civic Culture Study and World Values Surveys
The internet too has played a part, says Tom Woodnutt, a researcher in international marketing, who draws on the example of a picture widely circulated over e-mail of a breaded, deep-fried chicken's head from a well-known fast food outlet.

"Whether or not it's true, people's willingness to buy into it shows they want to feel less like a victim of branding and more like an autonomous consumer," says Mr Woodnutt.

But once again he sees a contradiction in mass behaviour. For example, while Washington's War on Terror has led consumers to voice cynical opinions on American brands, they still buy them "at a phenomenal rate".

Whether we are genuinely cynical or simply parade our doubt as a way of answering the difficult questions thrown up by an increasingly complex society, the nature of how we place our trust has changed fundamentally, says Paul Skidmore, of Demos.

"Big organisations used to take our goodwill for granted. Now they're guilty until proven innocent."

Timeline: how our trust in government has changed

Your comments:

Could part of it be the cynical presumption of the news media? Journalists like to be seen as fearless investigators. It is a lot easier to do that if you are digging for incompetence and corruption in public institutions than backing them although they are less than perfect. Running down Britain is fashionable. Journalists (and therefore, we) compare our snow clearance with the Swedes and our water management with the Saudis.
David Roe, England

Just because we're cynical doesn't mean we're not being lied to.
James Hull, UK

I think the cynical disease was set in by advertising/mail shots. We have got so used to disbelieving all the commercial hype about anything, that the attitude has now spread further afield, and we take anything we are offered with a pinch of salt.
Ben, UK

It's not cynicism - it's credulous stupidity. MMR is a classic example of people's mass stupidity. They claim to trust doctors hugely and mistrust journalists, yet they refuse to believe it when doctors tell them that MMR is safe because some know-nothing journalist working for the much-despised tabloid press hypes the so-called dangers. And they're incapable of looking at the wider picture to ask whether the disease might be worse than the vaccine. Likewise, they believe it when they're told that trains are too dangerous, but they happily travel by car without a second thought. I could go on ...
John, UK

I've just done the cynics quiz. The result was obviously that I am a cynic. Wouldn't that just have been the same no matter how I answered? Mmmm, I wonder
Jamie, Derbyshire

I think London is a very cynical place to be. The majority of the UK is nowhere near as cynical and hard-nosed as London.
Angela, UK

Mark Elliot, Brighton

It appears to me that the 'yeah, right' generation is a result of a backlash against recieved wisdom and knowledge that we as individuals do not have the resources to authenticate, and thus that being cynical has become an easy substitute for being wise. In my experience, the most cynical people have tended to actually know the least, and have held the most foolish, stubborn, superficial and prejudiced views. But they cover their ignorance with a sneer and a cynical attitude. It's the triumph of the lowest common denominator.
Martin Vickers, UK

Could this be a positive thing in the long run?! A climate of cynicism and mass information could be one in which politicians and companies are forced to be more honest about their intentions and uncertainties. Those who try this approach first could enjoy more success.
Nick, UK

This article looks at the past through rose tinted spectacles. Cynicism has always been around, and although we have no data for it, I'd be prepared to wager that a similar poll 100, 200 or 300 years ago would give similar results. Shakespeare is full of cynicism. As for the 'capitalism' theory propounded - phooey! He'll be blaming it on global warming next!
Tobias, United Kingdom

The simple fact is that there is a thin line between cynicism and bitter experience, experience has now forced many people in the UK to cross that line.
Carl Foulkes, UK

Why are we more cynical? Easy: once bitten, twice shy.
Jon, UK

I wouldn't brand it so much as cynicism but people having more information to hand and being less willing to be taken for a mug. As we have more access to information people are expecting a higher level of openness from the big organisations. Unfortunately, this doesn't seem to have reached the decision makers. Corporations have proved time and again through things like Enron, pension shambles, sweat-shop labour etc, that they have little regard for their "consumers".
Cath Tomlinson, UK

The reason we got so cynical is because it is now a lot clearer that we are being treated like mushrooms... and both politicians and press are to blame. Companies are not really part of the equation. Anyone who thinks a company does anything that is not related to profit is wrong... caveat emptor essentially.
Lee Hambly, UK

Far worse than cynicism, it is apathy which is the defining attitude of our time. It's one thing being cynical, but quite another not caring enough to want to change that.
Sam, UK

Without wishing to sound cynical, 71% of those polled say they trust TV newsreaders - yet 73% don't trust journalists...err aren't TV newsreaders journalists?
David S, Scotland

I don't believe for a moment that we are a nation of cynics.
Stephen Eddleston-McGrath, Namibia

Perhaps part of the blame should be placed upon a capitalist system that encourages free enterprise and market economics to a point that it's "every man for himself". People become disassociated with a society where they are seen as disposable and little more than a consumer statistic.
Jon Hobson, UK

Cynicism is easier than trust - and a lot of people are intellectually lazy. Intelligent and successful people often seem to be a lot less cynical about the world.

Politicians who show a degree of honesty and integrity never seem to get to close to the real positions of power.
Allan Tanner, Scotland

Everyone is lied to on a regular basis. It is the way of the world. Can I recommend listening to late great Bill Hicks for further details.
Daran Brookes, UK

It's not a mystery at all. When the statements of politicians and journalists differ so widely from the experience of people, the people tend to distrust the source. The solution is equally simple - tell the plain truth in a simple manner.
Geoff Lane, England

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