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Back to Index 21 September 2015

The Corrosive Effects of Social Cynicism


Professor Steve Burgess, Director, Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University Business School
The answer to this question is social cynicism. Social cynicism is a belief about life and how it works.  People who score highly on social cynicism believe that the world is a mean-spirited place where others cannot be trusted.  They mistrust social institutions and are more likely to disregard ethical means for achieving an end, believing that it makes sense to take care of yourself before others take advantage of you.




Social cynicism has a corrosive effect on individuals and organisations. It fosters low self-esteem, alcohol abuse, dissatisfaction with life, and biased views against some groups of people.  At work, social cynics tend to communicate less openly and be less committed and enterprising, putting their interests ahead of the longer-term interests of their companies and themselves. As consumers, they don’t believe that companies will keep promises and engage in negative word-of-mouth. 




In countries where social cynicism is high and widespread, gross national product, spending power and economic growth are lower.  People choose charismatic leaders as opposed to leaders who are more substantial.  Hence Donald Trump’s current popularity, despite the fact that a number of polls show that he does not enjoy very high approval ratings. Trump speaks to this kind of cynicism: “I don’t care what they say; I’ll do what I want to do. You can’t trust those guys over there!” 




We should be anxiously concerned about social cynicism because rigorous studies of large representative samples find that it is high in South Africa. 




Overall, social cynicism produces lower well-being in life. But importantly from a South African perspective, it is also the dark, fertile soil in which corruption takes strong root. Social cynicism destroys institutions and releases highly negative influences.




The concept stems from research into social axioms, which are general beliefs that people hold about life and how it works. For example, “Wars will lead to the destruction of civilization” and “Good health leads to success in work” are social axioms.




Beginning in the early 2000s, psychologists Kwok Leung and Michael Harris Bond of Chinese University of Hong Kong orchestrated work across 40 cultures to develop a new theory on social axioms.  The goal was to identify common beliefs that help explain differences in behaviour across cultures . Social axioms are the most recent large-scale programmatic approach to culture research and the first to begin in emerging markets, such as China, Venezuela and South Africa.  I have been a member of the team since 2002. 




When all the threads were gathered together, we had identified five kinds of beliefs that people hold about life and how it works. The one that was most unique was social cynicism.




What leads people to become cynical in this way is a sense of disempowerment. They feel they have no ability to influence outcomes. So, they put their hope in things that don’t deliver value to them. It is why people are taking up arms in different parts of the world and why Americans have been running up and down Wall Street - the Occupy Wall Street movement, for example. Disempowerment also fuels service delivery protests in this country and was directly behind the Arab Spring uprisings.




So how do we start to reduce social cynicism in South Africa?




We could begin with some serious conversations involving business, government and civil society. Something like a CODESA-type arrangement in which people who feel they are disempowered have a voice. But we have to understand that there are many sides to an issue. If we’re going to talk about the environmental degradation of the Karoo - something I personally feel strongly about - then we also have to talk about creating jobs in the Karoo for the people who eke out an existence there. Where we promote environmental sustainability, we must also promote social sustainability.




We all keep hearing that we’re not moving away from business as usual, and that business as usual is no longer good enough, so we need to change. But the reality is that we’re not moving away from business as usual because we’re not having these very, very uncomfortable conversations. It's not enough to realise that financial sustainability is impossible without social and environmental sustainability. We need to take concrete steps to put this realisation into practice. 




My fear is that by avoiding these conversations and not finding the right structures in which to conduct them, we create an environment in which social cynicism will grow. People who take very extreme points of view will have effects on both the conversations and the national agenda that may not be in the interest of South Africa and South Africans.




One way of overcoming social cynicism - call it business unusual, if you will - would be to start a conversation not only about our rights as individuals but also our responsibilities as individuals, as human beings, to one another. That is not a conversation that is taking place at present. For example, speak to most people at middle management level and ask them if they have been in a township in the last few weeks? Their answer will be no. I include in that people of colour that don’t live in a township. We get up in the morning, watch media that is primarily international, get into a car that’s the same as someone would drive overseas, drive on roads to offices that look the same, and never in a day do we see the problems that we need to address for people that are vulnerable and at risk in society.




That’s what business in South Africa needs to focus on and it goes beyond social entrepreneurship. How do we deal with the structural and human resource constraints in society? It might not keep Donald Trump out of the White House in the USA, but until we start to address these questions here and hold South Africa’s difficult conversations, social cynicism and its highly corrosive consequences will flourish.