Breaking the Cynicism Cycle: How Consumers Can Learn Trust Again

August 7 2018
I’ll confess it right away: I’m a cockeyed optimist. It might seem strange that I’ve spent the last two years conducting research on cynicism, but life takes some crazy turns sometimes, and, as a researcher, I think it’s often a good idea to follow up on a hunch and see where it leads.

How I got started

A few years ago, I was recuperating from surgery and took that time to get caught up on my field’s journals. I ran across a study on the psychology of cynicism by a scientist whose background is Russian-German. “Wow, that’s the perfect combination to really understand the cynical mindset,” I thought. I contacted her, learned more and we ended up working together.

Now I’m expanding my own research in this area. It’s a topic that holds a real fascination for me. In my research, I study how people think, feel and behave in order to make sense of marketplace and organizational outcomes. Learning more about the causes and motivations of our growing “cynicism cycle” has provided me with some often-surprising new insights into human behavior.

I’ll be presenting my findings on how cynicism affects trust at the upcoming conference “Ignite 2018—Protecting Trust in Today’s Consumer Journey.” The conference will be held September 20 at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management. It’s sponsored by YA and The Institute for Research in Marketing (IRM). Each session pairs a research scholar and a business practitioner, all with the goal of connecting academic findings with real-world results.


The disrespect-cynicism cycle

My research has involved looking at tens of thousands of people studied over the previous nine years, as well as several custom lab and field studies. A strong pattern has emerged between the incidence of disrespect and the development of an attitude of cynicism. Basically, when people feel they’re not being heard, valued or respected, they become increasingly cynical. This can create disrespectful behavior on their part, which leads to more cynicism building in someone else, which leads to a “cynicism spiral” that’s – well, that’s pretty much what we’re all living with every day.


Turning it around (yes, it’s possible)

In my presentation, I’ll be digging deeper into this phenomenon, looking at ways we as individuals and as organizations can fight back by adopting a new perspective of welcome and inclusion.

I’ll also be looking at some companies who are doing their part to create a culture that’s built on respect — a building block of trust. One of my favorite examples is Zappos, which describes itself as “a service company that happens to sell shoes.” They’ve built a corporate culture around the power of building authentic, welcoming relationships with their employees and their customers. One way that’s evident on the employee side is the “pay to quit” concept. During onboarding training, new employees are offered a hefty bonus to leave the company. That does two things: it weeds out those who aren’t a good fit. For those who stay, it’s psychologically reinforcing, helping them build an even stronger bond to their decision to be an employee.

And then there’s Zappos’ amazing customer service. When they recorded their longest customer service call ever (10 hours and 43 minutes), the employee who handled the call was commended (not chastised!) by the CEO, who said: “In many other call-center environments, an employee’s job performance depends on how quickly they can get the customer off the phone. At Zappos, we encourage employees to stay on the phone for as long as the customer wants, even if it’s over 10 hours long. We know it sounds crazy, but as long as the customer is happy, then we are happy, too.”


Register for Ignite
Happiness is not the prevailing mindset for most consumers these days, but Zappos shows that it is possible. There are other trailblazers who are finding ways to build trust, even among highly distrustful consumers. If you’d like to learn more about this research and my findings, I’d love to see you at the conference on September 20. Early Bird pricing ends soon, Register Now!

Kathleen Vohs is a Professor at McKnight University and Land O’Lakes Chair in Marketing, Carlson School of Management


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