Skip to main content

The Consequences of Political Cynicism: How Cynicism Shapes Citizens’ Reactions to Political Scandals


This paper argues cynicism toward elected officials colors how individuals in the mass public interpret information about political scandals. Specifically, citizens rely on prior levels of cynicism toward elected officials when assessing new information about potential political malfeasance. Drawing on panel data surrounding two prominent political scandals, this paper demonstrates prior levels of cynicism shape individuals’ interpretations of information about scandals, but cynicism does not affect the amount of attention individuals pay to scandals. Ultimately, the results shed light on individual-level variation in response to scandals, and suggest expressed cynicism toward politicians is a politically consequential individual-level attitude that affects whether or not political leaders can survive ethical transgressions.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.


  1. Cynicism is distinct from the related concept skepticism. Cynics are predisposed to find fault and assume human action is motivated by self interest while skeptics possess a more uncertain and questioning world view (Capella and Jamieson 1997; Eisinger 2000; Cook and Gronke 2005). Cynicism is thus a more pessimistic and definitive belief about the integrity of others than is skepticism.

  2. Blais et al. (2005) acknowledge this point on p. 29.

  3. Given my reliance on survey data to test these expectations, I remain agnostic about the exact mechanisms at play. Survey data are ill-equipped to test the processes through which prior beliefs affect future attitudes and behavior. Although the processes through which individuals arrive at their decisions are important venues for study, it is ultimately the decisions citizens reach about a scandal that prove politically consequential. This study assesses differences in the latter, and leaves detailed discussion of the former for future research.

  4. I chose to dichotomize the measure because there does not appear to be much conceptual distinction between saying “not very many” people running government are crooked and “hardly any” people running government are crooked. Re-running the analyses with the non-dichotomized measure produces similar results.

  5. One question asks, “Do you think that people in government waste a lot of the money we pay in taxes, waste some of it, or don’t waste very much of it?” Respondents’ evaluations of whether people in government waste money would seem to more closely align with Barber’s (1983) competence dimension, instead of the integrity dimension.

    A second question asks respondents whether they agree or disagree with the statement: “Public officials don’t care much what people like me think.” This question appears to more closely reflect citizens’ beliefs about the responsiveness of elected officials, or the quality of representational procedures (Weatherford 1992, p. 156), which could be evaluated independent of evaluations of elected officials’ integrity.

  6. Answers to the two questions, which include “don’t know” responses coded as a middle category, correlate at 0.14. The rather modest correlation is perhaps due to the reverse ordering of the questions, where agreeing with the first question is the cynical answer while disagreeing with the second question is the cynical answer. The questions show a stronger correlation at higher levels of education (0.30 for college-educated respondents). Re-running the analyses below without the least-educated respondents shows no notable differences in the results.

  7. The “don’t know” answers were coded as a middle category due to the small sample size. I replicated the results that follow dropping “don’t know” respondents and found no notable differences in the statistical or substantive significance of the main coefficients of interest.

  8. The predicted probability changes are calculated using Long and Freese's (2006) prchange command for Stata.

  9. Individuals were only asked this question if they reported hearing about the scandal. This could introduce problems of selection bias (Long 1997, Chap. 7). Using a selection model produces similar results.

  10. The different interpretations shaped public opinion about the favored consequences for overdrafters. Roughly 48% of those who said overdrafts did not break the law agreed writing bad checks was not a serious enough offense to disqualify someone from office compared to only 10.4% of those who felt bad check writers did break the law. However, Dimock and Jacobson (1994) find that voters who believed their own representative wrote bad checks tended to favor less severe consequences for overdrafters, thus dampening the electoral repercussions of the scandal.

  11. Future research could examine whether trust has an indirect effect, through cynicism, on reactions to scandals.

  12. Education is measured on a five-point scale ranging from eighth grade or less to college graduate. Interest is measured on a three-point scale with higher values indicating more interest.

  13. The evidence for the interpretation hypothesis is admittedly indirect given the current measures. This again requires me to remain agnostic about the exact mechanisms that produce the observed differences.


  • Barber, B. (1983). The logic and limits of trust. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Blais, A., Everitt, J., Fournier, P., Gidengil, E., & Nevitte, N. (2005). The political psychology of voters’ reactions to a corruption scandal. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association. Washington, DC.

  • Blais, A., Gidengil, E., Fournier, P., Everitt, J., Nevitte, N., & Kim, J. (2010). Political judgments, perceptions of facts, and partisan effects. Electoral Studies, 29, 1–12.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Bowler, S., & Karp, J. A. (2004). Politicians, scandals, and trust in government. Political Behavior, 26(3), 271–287.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Capella, J. N., & Jamieson, K. H. (1997). Spiral of cynicism: the press and the public good. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Chanley, V. A., Rudolph, T. J., & Rahn, W. M. (2000). The origins and consequences of public trust in government: A time series analysis. Public Opinion Quarterly, 64(3), 239–256.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Citrin, J. (1974). Comment: The political relevance of trust in government. American Political Science Review, 68, 973–988.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Citrin, J., & Green, D. P. (1986). Presidential leadership and the resurgence of trust in government. British Journal of Political Science, 16(4), 431–453.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Citrin, J., & Muste, C. (1999). Trust in government. In J. P. Robinson, P. R. Shaver, & L. S. Wrightsman (Eds.), Measures of political attitudes. San Diego: Academic Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Cook, T., & Gronke, P. (2005). The skeptical American: Revisiting the meaning of trust in government and confidence in institutions. The Journal of Politics, 67(3), 784–803.

    Google Scholar 

  • CQ Weekly. (April 18, 1992). Overdrafts listed from most to least according to house ethics committee, pp. 1006–1007.

  • CQ Weekly. (January 23, 2006). Three decades of lobbying scandal and repercussion, p. 239.

  • Craig, S. C., Niemi, R. G., & Silver, G. E. (1990). Political efficacy and trust: A report on the NES pilot study items. Political Behavior, 12(3), 289–314.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Dimock, M. A., & Jacobson, G. C. (1995). Checks and choices: The house bank scandal’s impact on voters in 1992. The Journal of Politics, 57(4), 1143–1159.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Eisinger, R. M. (2000). Questioning cynicism. Society, 37(5), 55–60.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Fischle, M. (2000). Mass response to the lewinsky scandal: motivated reasoning or bayesian updating? Political Psychology, 21(1), 135–159.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Funk, C. L. (1996). The impact of scandal on candidate evaluations: An experimental test of the role of candidate traits. Political Behavior, 18(1), 1–24.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Gaines, B. J., Kuklinski, J. H., Quirk, P. J., Peyton, B., & Verkuilen, J. (2007). Same facts, different interpretations: Partisan motivation and opinion on Iraq. The Journal of Politics, 69(4), 957–974.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Hetherington, M. J. (2005). Why trust matter: Declining political trust and the demise of American liberalism. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Hibbing, J. R., & Theiss-Morse, E. (2002). Stealth democracy: Americans’ beliefs about how government should work. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Hibbing, J. R., & Welch, S. (1997). The effects of charges of corruption on voting behavior in congressional elections, 1982–1990. The Journal of Politics, 59(1), 226–239.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Holm, J. D., Bochner, A. P. and Kraus, S. (1976) Watergate hearings panel survey. [Computer file]. Cleveland, OH: J D. Holm, Cleveland State University, Department of Political Science [producer], 1974. Ann Arbor, MI: Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research [distributor]. doi:10.3886/ICPSR07352.

  • Holm, J., Kraus, S., & Bochner, A. (1974). Communication and opinion formation: Issues generated by the watergate hearings. Communication Research, 1(4), 368–389.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Johnston, D. (1992). Investigator finds evidence of crimes in house bank use. New York Times, 17 December.

  • Kunda, Z. (1990). The case for motivated reasoning. Psychological Bulletin, 108(3), 480–498.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Kunda, Z. (1999). Social cognition: Making sense of people. Cambridge: MIT Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Long, J. S. (1997). Regression models for categorical and limited dependent variables. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications.

    Google Scholar 

  • Long, J. S., & Freese, J. (2006). Regression models for categorical and limited dependent variables using stata. College Station, TX: Stata Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • McGraw, Kathleen., Lodge, M., & Jones, J. M. (2002). The pandering politicians of suspicious minds. The Journal of Politics, 64(2), 362–383.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Robinson, M. J. (1974). The impact of the televised watergate hearings. Journal of Communication, 24(2), 17–29.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Rudolph, T. J., & Evans, J. (2005). Political trust, ideology, and public support for government spending. American Journal of Political Science, 49(3), 660–671.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Saad, L. (2009). Honesty and ethics poll finds congress’ image tarnished.

  • Sanitioso, R., Kunda, Z., & Fong, G. T. (1990). Motivated recruitment of autobiographical memories. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 59(2), 229–241.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Stoker, L. (1993). Judging presidential character: The demise of gary hart. Political Behavior, 15(2), 193–223.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Sweeney, P. D., & Gruber, K. L. (1984). Selective exposure: Voter information preferences and the watergate affair. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (46), 1208–1221.

  • Taber, C., & Lodge, M. (2006). Motivated skepticism in political information processing. American Journal of Political Science, 50(3), 755–769.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Weatherford, M. S. (1992). Measuring political legitimacy. American Political Science Review, 86(1), 149–166.

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to Logan Dancey.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Dancey, L. The Consequences of Political Cynicism: How Cynicism Shapes Citizens’ Reactions to Political Scandals. Polit Behav 34, 411–423 (2012).

Download citation

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI: