Academic journal article North American Journal of Psychology

Observations on Police Cynicism: Some Preliminary Findings

Academic journal article North American Journal of Psychology

Observations on Police Cynicism: Some Preliminary Findings

Article excerpt

Cynicism has been defined as "an attitude of contemptuous distrust of human nature and motives" (Graves, 1996). Cynicism is often related to burnout, but work by Gorkin (2004) considers cynicism to be but one stage in the development of burnout. This, of course, provides additional incentive to understand the causes and consequences of cynicism as a potential aspect of avoiding burnout. According to Gorkin (2004), the four elements of burnout are: (a) physical, mental and emotional exhaustion, (b) shame and doubt, (c) callousness and cynicism, and (d) failure, helplessness and crisis. Defining cynicism, however, is only a small part of the challenge. Discovering the causes of cynicism would appear to be a significantly more challenging task. Both sets of definitions (cynicism and burnout) do not lend themselves easily to measurement because they include mentalistic terminology. It is not the purpose of this paper to address that concern, but it should be kept in mind as these terms are used throughout the work.

Cynicism in police officers has been studied since the 1960's (Niederhoffer, 1967). Much of this literature has assumed that cynicism is negative and there is, somehow, something "wrong" with those who develop it and that they should be "treated" or "removed" from their positions. Instead, it is also possible to interpret this literature as demonstrating that cynicism in officers is rather ubiquitous and, in most cases understandable given the realities of policing. The primary reason that the development of cynicism is "understandable" is that it is an attitude and attitudes involve affective, cognitive and behavioral components that can change as a result of experience (e.g., McGuire, Lindzey and Aronson, 1985). This work assumes, from the outset, that cynicism is an unfavorable attitude that can develop as the result of experience. Certain experiences will likely be shown to predict its development and other experiences will likely be shown to buffer against it, ameliorate its effects and, perhaps, reverse it. If this set of assumptions appears valid, studying the development, impact and possible reversal of cynicism is essential. Indeed, Caplan (2003) concludes his article on the potential survival aspects of police cynicism by stating:

"The police job, inevitably, produces cynicism; therefore, perhaps it is an evolutionary career trait: the cynical survive and the idealistic do not. Since police can be cynical about nearly all aspects of police work, they could, with appropriate leadership and training, learn to use their cynicism to improve a wide range of police activities. Furthermore, because cynicism varies geographically, it can be tailored to meet the needs of police in their respective departments ... Currently, the negative side-effects outweigh the positive aspects of cynicism. Perhaps that is because it is a tool that police officers are not properly trained to use" (Caplan, 2003, pp. 311-312).

The current paper presents one study (with three phases of data collection) that represents a preliminary effort to outline the negative aspects of cynicism. I will explore the relationship between the presence of cynical attitudes in officers and officer views of why people commit crimes, the likelihood of justice being an outcome in our system, and a variety of demographics that might relate to buffering against the development of cynicism, and officer, family member and supervisor views about causes of cynicism.

Although cynicism has been defined as an attitude since its earliest scholarly definition (e.g., Clark, 1965, Neiderhoffer, 1967), little work has attempted to study how all three components (affective, cognitive and behavioral) of such an attitude might develop and what impact each might have. The current studies attempt to begin that process. In order to understand why the current study was developed, a brief review of the cynicism literature is warranted. For a comprehensive review of literature on police cynicism, the reader is encouraged to read Hobbs (2008). …

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