Turning the tide of cynicism - RSA

Turning the tide of cynicism

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  • Picture of Charles Fowler FRSA
    Charles Fowler FRSA
    Raising awareness of the importance of values in all aspects of our lives and society.
  • Social brain
  • Communities

As we begin to return to some sort of post-Covid-19 normality, one thing that will stay with us from the crisis will be the wonderful flowering of humanity, compassion and generosity that helped see us through the shock and fear. Charles Fowler FRSA asks whether this can last.

From the splendid determination of Captain Tom, to the innumerable unsung acts of kindness happening in local communities across the world, people rose to the challenge of Covid-19. We all saw this and were amazed. Cynics will say that this was all an aberration, that human nature doesn’t change. Look at the history of our human race. Isn’t it filled with countless wars, genocides, cruelty, greed, not to mention our reckless squandering of natural resources? Any feelgood factor will soon be just a fading memory. On this view, we are driven by self-interest and our uncontrollable desires and are trapped in an endless cycle of suffering. Civilisation is merely a thin veneer which constantly warps and cracks.

This cynical view is certainly widely held. Research shows that the overwhelming majority of people in the UK believe that they are living in a society characterised by crime, violence, conflict, and corruption. They believe that most people act from mostly selfish motives and that the institutions of our society actively encourage such selfishness. Such lack of confidence and trust in society is a common factor around the world. In most countries surveyed by Edelman in its annual Trust Barometer, less than half of the people trust their country’s institutions to do what is right. The cynics think this makes them realistic. But are they right?

Perceptions matter

The answer may lie in the deeply flawed way we perceive other people. In the UK National Values Assessment, people were devastatingly negative about the values they saw in their society (similar results were seen in other countries). However, when asked about their own values and those of their immediate community, the perception of most people was completely different. They spoke about their own personal values typically using words such as caring, honesty, compassion, respect and trust.  When they talked about their experience of where they lived, they talked about helpfulness, friendship, the sense of community.

In other words, where they had direct experience they saw a completely different world from the world they knew only indirectly through media, rumour and gossip. In this strange, almost schizophrenic, world that most of us seem to live in, we appear to be living on little islands of decency and unselfishness surrounded by an ocean of brutal selfishness. 

As the 2016 Common Cause UK Values Survey put it with masterly understatement: “perceptions matter”. An impressive 74% of those surveyed considered that compassionate (unselfish) values were most important to them personally, and almost the same proportion believed that the values of their fellow citizens were significantly more selfish than they actually were.  This negative view of other people’s motivations inevitably results in a general distrust of social institutions and a reluctance to engage positively with society.

So embedded in us is this negative view of human nature that, even when we see other people performing altruistic acts, we attribute their behaviour to selfish motives. This was the conclusion of several studies a few years ago by American social psychologists Clayton Critcher and David Dunning. Altruistic actions like helping elderly or homeless people were viewed by the participants as being done with essentially selfish motives. In the final study, participants read about philanthropists whose acts of generosity had been featured in the news. After spending time considering why the philanthropists did what they did, they became ever more cynical about their motives to give. They were so used to thinking cynically about other people’s motivations, that they couldn’t be convinced by any evidence to the contrary.

Are we really so selfish?

The cynics will say: ‘But there is so much hard evidence that the human race is basically selfish and cruel! What about all those wars and genocides, the cruelty and greed mentioned earlier? History is full of it, and what’s more we see it every day on TV.’ And, of course, history is full of wars, greed and cruel and selfish acts. This is drilled into us every day by television, newspapers, movies, books and the internet. Our minds are constantly invaded by negative news and views. What we underestimate is what a distorted view all these media give us of how the vast majority of people live their lives and what motivates them.

Over the last few decades we have seen global poverty, child mortality, famine, crime, accidental deaths all fall precipitously. To take one example, the proportion of the global population living in extreme poverty has halved over the past 20 years. This is an extraordinary success story which one might assume would be common knowledge. How many people actually do know this? According to, amongst others, data analysed by Hans Rosling, only 7%; less than one in 10.

Why do we have such an unbalanced view of the world around us? Rutger Bregman, who recently discussed these issues and his recent book Humankind with the RSA’s Matthew Taylor, gives two main reasons.

First, Negativity Bias: from our days as vulnerable hunter gatherers keeping a sharp look-out for danger we are more tuned in to spotting potentially bad things than good. A wealth of recent psychology studies has shown that negativity bias still fundamentally distorts the way we perceive each other and what happens to us.

Second, Availability Bias. If we can easily recall instances of something, we assume it is common. As Bregman says: “we are bombarded daily with horrific stories about aircraft disasters, child snatchers and beheadings, which tend to lodge in the memory and skew our view of the world”. Not to mention all those wars, epidemics and natural disasters.

I would add a third reason; we all have a strong tendency to project our own feelings of negativity onto others. Traditional psychology from Freud and Jung onwards has shown us how we protect ourselves from unconscious feelings of inadequacy, guilt, fear, anger and so on by attributing them to other people. ‘They’ are the problem, not me. The ‘others’ can be individuals (perhaps someone who reminds us of our mother or father) or, even more dangerously, groups of ‘others’.

Sadly terrible things are happening somewhere in the world most of the time, but the reality for the vast majority of us is that we mostly live our lives quietly and perhaps even boringly, among generally nice, kind people, and we are generally living longer and healthier lives than ever before. Only this isn’t very newsworthy.  This has a terrible effect on our willingness to fully engage in society. When we believe that the world around us is rotten and devoid of compassionate values, we naturally hold back from expressing our own kindness and compassion to others, particularly to people we do not know. Instead we tell each other that ‘most people are out for themselves’, reinforcing the message from the media. Our apathy and alienation from society is thus compounded.

Will this tide of cynicism ever turn? Are we doomed to forget about our clapping of the medics, our appreciation of Captain Tom, our recognition that big companies can be compassionate too? 

We can turn the tide

Maybe the tide hasn’t turned just yet, but perhaps due to the current crisis it has paused for a little while. We have an opportunity to start turning it around. By changing the way we behave and engage, we can change the way other people see the world. Perceptions can change unexpectedly fast, especially when they are based on wrong assumptions. Major cultural shifts are happening all the time and the speed of these shifts is accelerating all the time.

Modern neuroscience confirms the truth of the old saying ‘what we pay attention to grows’. If we can put our ‘best’ values – our unselfish compassionate values – consistently into action in our lives, our neuroplastic brains will gradually be rewired and the negativity will wither away.

So let us hang on to the genuine warmth and compassion that we experienced from each other in these recent months. Let’s not be shy about putting our values into action and giving a lead to others and believe in other people and trust them wherever we can. Let’s take on the cynics and tell them the world is not rotten, and spread the word about those wonderful, life-enhancing values that we all share.  

By the way, it is World Values Day on 15 October. It is a time for celebrating our values and reaffirming our commitment to them. It could be a good time for all of us to start to push back the tide, and let a wave of values ripple around the world.


Charles Fowler FRSA helps co-ordinate World Values Day. He is part of the Steering Group of the UK Values Alliance, is Chair of the Human Values Foundation, and was involved in the recent launch of an innovative multi-media values education programme for children called The Big Think

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  • The degree to which we believe we can trust strangers (people we don't know personally) is the most widely accepted measure of social capital. This measure is critical, not only to the cooperation needed for an advanced economy (eg. Sweden which has very high levels of social trust) but also in our attitudes towards key steps for progress, like basic income. ( We all trust ourselves to use money responsibly and still work hard, but fear that others will not).

    This makes the question of how to build mutual empathy and trust across communities absolutely critical.  Reliable institutions and impartial rule of law are fundamental (to keep rule breakers in check).  But at a deeper level, we all need to evolve beyond "them and us" thinking, that seeks to derive our security and confidence from membership of exclusive groups. Education, religion, and the media, can all play a big role, by either exposing or reinforcing our sectarian prejudices.  

    Yet ultimately, I believe this must be a journey of self discovery. It is only once we learn to value and celebrate the ideas and cultures of others who are different to us, that we can properly come to understand and be comfortable with our own individual identity,  

    Einstein perhaps put it best when he wrote "A human being is part of a whole. Yet we experience ourselves, our thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest.... an optical delusion of consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty."

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