Cynics more likely to develop heart disease, study suggests

Alexandra Thompson
·4-min read
The photo of heart is on the woman's body, Severe heartache, Having heart attack or Painful cramps, Heart disease, Pressing on chest with painful expression.
Heart disease is behind more than one in four deaths in the UK alone. (Stock, Getty Images)

Cynical people may face a higher risk of heart disease, research suggests.

Scientists from Baylor University in Waco, Texas, analysed nearly 200 adults as they delivered a five-minute speech defending themselves against an accusation of shoplifting or speeding.

Heart rate and blood pressure readings were taken every two minutes to gauge the participants’ psychological stress levels.

Results revealed those who scored highest on an earlier cynical hostility test experienced significantly more stress while defending themselves against the imaginary accusation.

Cynical hostility was defined as having “negative beliefs, thoughts and attitudes about other people’s motives, intentions and trustworthiness”.

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Psychological stress can “strain the cardiovascular system over time”, raising the risk of heart disease.

Amid the recent US election and ongoing pandemic, the scientists warned their results may be “extremely relevant in today’s political and health climate”.

Woman starting in the day.
Cynicism may trigger psychological stress that puts a strain on the heart. (Posed by a model, Getty Images)

“Cynical hostility is more cognitive, consisting of negative beliefs, thoughts and attitudes about other people’s motives, intentions and trustworthiness,” said lead author Alexandra Tyra.

“It can be considered suspiciousness; lack of trust or cynical beliefs about others.

“These findings reveal a greater tendency to engage in cynical hostility, which appears to be extremely relevant in today’s political and health climate, can be harmful not only for our short-term stress responses but also our long-term health.”

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More than one in four deaths in the UK alone are caused by heart disease, which is also “the single biggest killer worldwide”.

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The scientists analysed 196 participants who took part in the Laboratory for the Study of Stress, Immunity, and Disease.

The participants were given five minutes to formulate their speech and another five minutes to deliver it.

“These methods of social and self-evaluation are designed to increase the experience of stress, and have been validated in prior research,” said Tyra.

Heart rate and blood pressure recordings were collected every two minutes throughout the study.

Finally, the participants completed a test that measures “emotional, behavioural and cognitive components of hostility”.

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Someone affected by the emotional component – for example anger or annoyance – may say, “people often disappoint me”.

The behavioural component is defined as aggression, with someone potentially thinking, “I would certainly enjoy beating a crook at his or her own game”.

The cognitive component involves cynicism, for example, “I think most people would lie to get ahead”.

‘Places strain on cardiovascular system’

The results – published in the journal Psychophysiology – linked cynical hostility only to “blunted cardiovascular reactivity”.

“This does not imply emotional and behavioural hostility are not bad for you, just that they may affect your health or wellbeing in other ways,” said Tyra.

The scientists believe a cynical outlook may take its toll on the heart.

“The increased risk of hostility is likely due to heightened physiological arousal to psychological stress, which can strain the cardiovascular system over time,” said Tyra.

“However, there has been a need for research to examine these physiological responses across multiple stress exposures to better resemble real-world conditions and assess adaptation over time.”

A healthy cardiovascular response to repeated stress would involve an initial increase in arousal, dubbed “fight or flight”, which would then decrease upon subsequent exposure to the same stressor.

“Essentially, when you’re exposed to the same thing multiple times, the novelty of that situation wears off and you don’t have as big of a response as you did the first time,” said Tyra. “This is a healthy response.

“Our study demonstrates a higher tendency for cynical hostility may prevent or inhibit this decrease in response over time.

“In other words, the cardiovascular system responds similarly to a second stressor as it did to the first.

“This is unhealthy because it places increased strain on our cardiovascular system over time.”

The scientists hope future research will look at how a person’s cynicism can change over time.

“Perhaps following individuals as they grow older to see whether a greater tendency to use cynical hostility while young is actually related to poor cardiovascular outcomes at an older age, such as a heart attack,” said Tyra.

In the meantime, the scientists hope their research will help people be more conscious of how they respond to stressful situations.

“Perhaps the next time someone thinks a negative thought about the motives, intentions or trustworthiness of their best friend, a co-worker or even a politician, they will think twice about actively engaging with that thought,” said Tyra.

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