I once sat in a meeting where the CEO shredded every idea his team presented. 

"We're going to have to step it up," one of them said after the CEO had left the room. "We really need to do our homework before we meet next time."

I thought that was odd. He had never actually justified any of his positions. No facts. No data. No logic. Just platitudes.

Like, "Too many potential downsides." And, "Too risky." And, "Too complicated for the level of expected return." He said what he thought about their ideas, but he never explained why. I couldn't understand why they thought he was so quick. So insightful.

So smart.  

Turns out that assumption isn't uncommon. According to a study published in 2019 in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, most people assume that cynical people -- those who tend to be doubtful that something is worthwhile or will happen -- are smarter. That they are "cognitively superior."

Nope. Cynical people tend to do worse on cognitive ability and academic competency tasks.

In fact, the more cynical you are, the less competent you're likely to be.

Our results revealed that laypeople tend to endorse the "cynical genius" belief -- that is, believed that cynical individuals would do better on a variety of cognitive tasks and cognitive ability tests than their less cynical counterparts.

An examination of empirical associations between cynicism and competence based on the data of about 200,000 individuals from 30 countries debunked the "cynical genius" belief as illusionary. Cynical individuals are likely to do worse (rather than better) on cognitive tasks, cognitive abilities and competencies tests, and tend to be less educated than less cynical individuals.


Taking a cynical position is easy. It's a lot simpler, and a lot less risky, to say why something won't work. 

It's a lot easier to judge than understand, much less embrace.

Plus, statements like, "That's too risky" appear to carry the weight of experience. Saying something new might be worth trying? That sounds more like a guess.

And then there's this: Brain scans show we pay more attention to and give much greater weight to negative experiences. Negative events are quickly stored in our long-term memory, but we need to actively think about positive events for 12 seconds or more in order for them to be transferred to long-term memory.

In short, it's easy to be cynical -- to latch on to the negatives instead of considering potential positives -- not only because it's safer, but also because we're built that way.

All of which is a problem.

Take deciding whether to invest in new businesses or initiatives; research shows that people are more swayed by negative views than positive ones. While evaluators lowered their scores by more points after seeing scores more critical than their own, they didn't raise them after seeing more favorable scores. 

Negative clearly seemed smarter than positive, which led to protecting against failure.

Instead of seeking to maximize success.

The next time someone immediately shoots down an idea, don't assume they're smart.

More important, the next time an idea sounds interesting to you, don't immediately assume you're wrong. Or less intelligent.

As Jeff Bezos says, "The smartest people are constantly revising their understanding, reconsidering a problem they thought they'd already solved. They're open to new points of view, new information, new ideas, contradictions, and challenges to their own way of thinking."

And, just as important, are smart enough to realize that never trying something new means never achieving anything new.