Believing Your Age

Conan O’Brien’s departing message:

All I ask of you, especially young people … is one thing. Please don’t be cynical,” O’Brien said. “I hate cynicism — it’s my least favorite quality and it doesn’t lead anywhere. Nobody in life gets exactly what they thought they were going to get. But if you work really hard and you’re kind, amazing things will happen. I’m telling you, amazing things will happen.

Why ask this especially of young folks?  After all, among the generations, young folks are the least likely to be cynical, i.e., to generally attribute low untrustworthy motives to others.  And why should the truth of a belief about the world depend on your age anyway?  If low motives are common, that fact is equally true for all age people.

Apparently, we like people to “act their age,” including having age-appropriate beliefs.  Young folks are supposed to be more idealistic, while old folks are more cynical.  Why?

This seems to me well explained by the standard econ concept of lock-in, where the costs of switching rise with the tenure of a relation.  Before you form a relation, you want to project high switching costs, while once you are locked in, you want to project low switching costs.

When you are idealistic about how others will treat you in your relationships, you become more attractive as a relation partner.  This helps you attract better partners.  Later in life, when you are attached to particular others via relations, you are better off being suspicious and cynical, as this gives you a negotiation edge when threatening to leave your partners, and discourages them from exploiting you.

HT Jennifer Ouellett.

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  • david

    A contrary cultural attitude: 少不读水浒,老不读三国

    • Tyrrell McAllister

      A contrary cultural attitude: 少不读水浒,老不读三国

      Google’s translation: Less do not read Water Margin, the old do not read the three

      I think it’s missing some nuance.

      • MZ

        “Less do not read Water Margin, the old do not read the three”

        I think that pretty much sums up life.

      • Some Google searching brought up the meaning to the completely idiomatic proverb:

        A popular proverb reflects the diverse fan-bases of the above three classics: Do not let a young man read Water Margin (少不读水浒) (for he could become more rebellious); do not let an old man read Three Kingdoms (老不读三国) (for he might be more scheming); do not let a girl read Dream Chamber (女不读红楼) (for she may lose herself in a romantic fantasy world).

        My interpretation is that certain demographics are prone to certain behaviours, or that certain behaviours are particularly disastrous.

        Are young people particularly prone to be cynical? Maybe not. But is it particularly bad for them to do so, when they’re just starting their adult life? I think so.

      • david

        To add on the Alex K.’s quote – Water Margin is a Robin Hood-like story of idealism, social reform, and rebellion. Three Kingdoms has three sides scheming at each other with defections and betrayals everywhere.

        It’s the reverse of Hanson’s “[young] folks are supposed to be more idealistic, while old folks are more cynical”.

      • So young men should read Three Kindoms, but one hopes they will have forgotten it by the time they’re old.

  • josh

    His audience is young? Young people are more able to change?

    Also, I’m not sure that young people are less cynical. Ask a student why George Bush invaded Iraq.

    • bcg

      This is still idealism, in its own way, in the way that it attributes “evil” to a set of persons, rather than to very common instincts in everyone.

    • Norman

      I think you’ve got it here. Conan is calling out the group he is most likely to be able to influence. There’s little point telling people who are already cynical not to be cynical, as they’ll probably interpret such advice cynically. It’s much more meaningful to try pushing back the adoption of cynicism.

      While I think the average young person is substantially less cynical than the average old person, it seems obvious to me that cynicism has been setting in earlier in recent generations. So the goal would be to reverse this trend.

  • Robert Bloomfield

    Interestingly, the rest of the quote is not about cynicism at all (usually defined as the belief that all actions are self-interested), but about inefficacy. The word he seems to want is ‘defeatist’.

    As far as Robin’s assertion that young people are optimally idealistic and old are optimally cynical, let me add two other arguments. First, the enormous literature on trust show that trust is amply repaid by the trustworthiness of others many settings in which there is a long possible future of cooperation. Second, young people can indeed often have faith that the people they deal with (parents, teachers, doctors, policemen, etc.) do indeed take children’s best interests to heart. This is less true for adults.

    • Defeatism is cynicism about the potential for personal achievement.

  • Ryan Vann

    A comedian who rallies against being cynical? No wonder he got his walking papers from NBC (granted I’d have gladly took them at that pay off).

    Awesome Chinese proverb btw.

  • Sounds to me like empty pandering from a guy who doesn’t expect his comments to be analysed that much.

    “Cynicism is bad”
    *audiences applauds*
    “Idealism is good”
    *shouting and cheering*
    “Young people are our future”
    *standing ovation*

  • Matt

    I think that young people are not supposed to be cynical because they are not particularly good at it. It probably helps to have a lot of life experiences in order to be tactfully cynical. Given that most people grow more cynical over the years, it would be best if young people were more open or even slightly naive so they could have a larger foundation of experiences to draw from. It’s kind of like diversifying your portfolio.

    • ThePencileFamily

      Learn through experience. Quite naturally young people put themselves in a position to fail, which ultimately is where life lessons are best learned.

      Oh my how the failed deeds motivated by the preconceived positive thoughts about a different better outcome teach thee. <—- That's my anarchy sentence for the day.

  • Aron

    Good riddance Conan and your irrationality. The truth always wins in the end.

  • bcg

    There’s an incentive for people in power to encourage idealistic subordinates because they tend to be more willing to sacrifice, which is useful for those in power. The idealist is more likely to accept an order “Die for this cause that will, coincidentally, result in me being king” than a cynic.

    This is the same thing as when old people tell you that relationships are all that matter – at the end of life, the elderly are more dependent on those under them, and so they have an incentive to try to make those younger (and more capable) to value relationships more (i.e., fear pissing him off).

    • Ryan Vann

      I agree with BCQ, but also would argue cynicism is highly undervalued especially in regards to young people. Many opportunities for growth and security strengthening can be gained from cynics, so long as a leader can provide the correct incentives. It also depends on the type of work we are talking about.

      A prudent thought experiment might be in the process of thought in choosing to hire a police officer vs hiring a political campaigner. I’d probably be more inclined to hire the officer who appears more cynical (which often translates to more aware and logical), but would want the campaigner that is full of enthusiasm. Also, I don’t think either traits are necessarily mutually exclusive. One could be very enthusiastic in his cynicism, or cynical about certain things but not others.

  • Unnamed

    His advice sounds a lot like “work hard to be successful and take advantage of your opportunities”, which does seem especially relevant to younger people, whose lives are much less settled than older people. He seems to be referring more to optimism about whether hard work and potential opportunities will pay off than to beliefs about other people’s motives.

  • Tim Tyler

    Other theories that might help account for the observation:

    * Cynicism is actually realism, and the young are too inexperienced to know that;

    * People act with low motives more towards older folk.

  • Stuart Armstrong

    A simpler possible explanation:
    1) Cynicism is seen as bad, a flaw we all have but must fight against.
    2) Age makes cynics of us all, and we reluctantly accept this fact.
    3) Therefore there is nothing worse than a young cynic; they’re cynical, with much less excuse for being so.

  • tom
  • Robert Speirs

    Hmm. Does intelligence increase as cynicism does? Or the other way around? Or is it dumb to be cynical? Does experience lead to cynicism?
    What good are intelligence and knowledge about the world if they don’t lead to an accurate appraisal of men’s motives? Could that be called cynicism?

  • Matt

    I think there is a nuance in Conan’s statement that cynicism causes people to not try for what they want. Younger people have more options than older people to make riskier decisions (not having mortgage payments, kids, more time to crawl back up if they fail) and therefore should not be cynical so that they do no miss opportunities for risky but high yielding pursuits.

    Another possibility is that there is a minority subculture of cynical young people that assume because older people are more cynical then cynicism=wisdom and Conan does not want his experience to be used as evidence by them (though simply saying “don’t us this as evidence for that” probably won’t do any good).

  • A dude

    Robin’s assumption that people in different age groups actively chose their degree of cynicism to further some objective goals is wrong.

    There are few situations where cynicism pays off consistently over time, similar to mistrust.

    My explanation would center around this: cynisim is an excuse people develop to explain own failures benchmarked on their prior expectations. So what dirves cynisims is some function of [achievement] minus [expectation]. My perception is that for young people that gap is greater than ever in history, primarily because of the initial investment in education and work experience required. (The size of this investment sets limits to complexity in a society and we are at or beyond those limits now.) Plus you can always blame TV shows.

  • I just checked the GSS, and there are two types of cynicism — about people and about organizations or institutions.

    People-cynicism, measured by how trustworthy you think “people” are, declines with age until the early 40s, plateaus through the mid-60s, then increases a bit through the late 70s.

    Org-cynicism, measured by how much confidence you have in various institutions, increases with age, usually through age 55. Sometimes org-cynicism falls after 65, e.g. for religion, but overall that’s the pattern.

    So young people are suspicious of other individuals but are trusting of organizations, while middle-aged people trust other individuals but are suspicious of organizations. Good luck recruiting young voters for individual responsibility policies. Anyone who becomes a committed libertarian at a young age is clearly weird; they probably have other adult-aspiring affectations too.

  • It sounds like Conan is arguing against people-cynicism — be more trusting and kind towards other individuals, not necessarily towards labor unions or doctors or political parties. He’s worried about young people’s natural tendency to be suspicious of other individuals, to be overly tribal.

    That’s another indicator that young people are more people-cynical: they operate more in tribes or packs — social firms — than do middle-aged people. That must mean that transacting socially among young individuals is more costly than among middle-aged individuals, so young people form firms or cliques to do things in-house, while middle-aged people are more contractual or market-oriented to get social functions done.

    That also means that young people have higher monitoring costs since they work in firms rather than use a price system and piecework. And sure enough, young people scrutinize their peers’ compliance with group norms and ethnic markers (hair, clothes, slang, music, etc.) much more ruthlessly than do middle-aged people.

    So the lock-in idea is in the right direction — it hits on the difficulty of organizing collective action — but it’s a bit more subtle. Young people are cynical about individuals but are idealistic about the group’s ability to overcome the problems of individual low motives.

  • Jason

    My evolving impression is that optimism and “liberal” ideas are more prevalent in the young because their heuristics are not as well developed, so they have a tendency to rely on the prefrontal cortex (which while it controls slow, deliberative “rational” thought, can also bring about paralyzing indecision). Older people are given to cynicism and “conservative” ideas which tend to be a collection of heuristics for quick decision making (and cognitive biases) centered in the limbic system that have developed to better optimize time as one increases one’s responsibility.

    [I may be a little off in the attribution of brain bits.]

    This heuristic helps me understand with my limited tenure in the world that, e.g. conservatives (generally older people) have a cynicism regarding government intervention but additionally risk-seeking behavior when it comes to losses (free markets can have catastrophic losses) as opposed to the slow bleed of losses that comes from the costs of government regulation.

    It also helps me in my old age understand why liberals (generally younger people) would rather debate and compromise on health care indefinitely (constantly weighing the costs and benefits, optimistic about the outcome) than pass a flawed bill — I mean, two Bayesian’s with common priors can’t agree to disagree, right?

    I’m right on the cusp of O’Brien’s demographic; too old to be young; too young to be old. I think the knack to life, young or old, is to have the right balance of optimism and cynicism. I’m not sure if this comes automatically at the transition, though.

  • There are great observations from Robin and in the comments at large.

    I would like to submit that the root of Conan’s statement about cynicism may rest in some part with the generation which he is part of: Generation X. This will draw somewhat from Strauss & Howe’s perspectives. While I generally accept it as a useful model of thinking, I love to put it out there and get some holes poked in it, too, because it seems too neat and tidy sometimes.

    I’m a gen-X’er, too. Growing up, the one dominant emotion that I felt really was cynicism. I heard so much about how I was supposed to respect (or hate) the baby boomer generation for their accomplishments, depending on whether it was my anti-60’s religious parents or boomer teachers doing the talking.

    Arrogant dismissal and ironic snorts were our stock and trade. More than a few of my friends pined that there was nothing to accomplish in our world. WWII was the pervue of the giants of our past and all the big social movements were sort of decided for us.

    I could be speaking out of turn, but he might have been responding to that generational attitude (whether it’s true or not). I will admit I have a bias in my read of my peer group and certainly won’t say this is “right” in any way, but it did resonate with me.

    As always, thanks for the thoughts. This blog and its community continue to challenge me and my thinking. I welcome it.

  • kamileon

    I’m not sure what teenagers you’re hanging around, but I am curious how you define cynicism, if not the inherent quality of being a teenager. The typical Western process of individuation usually carries a lot of cynicism, in order to distinguish themselves from their family/environment, which they see as the status quo. (Which is simultaneously idealistic and cynical, as they trust nothing, but still think they can change everything.)

    For a great example of this in action (along with a brilliant screed), see this article:

    If that’s not cynical, I don’t know what is.