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Cynicism and watch collecting

Feb 28, 2022

I recently watched a TED Talk by Professor Jamil Zaki, a Stanford neuroscientist. Worth watching the talk, but I wanted to explore a few of the concepts he discussed. In particular he talked about the learnings from a study of two Brazilian fishing villages which I found particularly fascinating, and which I wanted to connect with watch collecting. 

The cynicism trap

The TED talk is all about cynicism i.e. the idea that people have an inclination to believe that others are motivated purely by self-interest. This inevitably leads to widespread scepticism and contributes to making humanity lonelier and more divided. In the talk, Professor Zaki makes a scientific case for optimism over cynicism, and offers some advice on how to avoid what he calls “the cynicism trap”. Lets cover a few of his key points:

Cynicism breeds cynicism

Jamil Zaki references a study in Brazil concerning a pair of fishing villages separated by 30 miles. In one of these fishing villages, they practice sea fishing, where fishermen are required to work collaboratively or in groups, to ensure success. In the other fishing village, they practice lake fishing, where every fisherman operates individually. 

This study evaluated people from both villages using social/behavioural tests. No surprise that the people from the sea fishing village were better at cooperation as well as trusting others. The lake village folks were overly competitive and more mistrustful. In essence, these villagers were a product of their respective environments… and what’s more, these values became more deeply entrenched with time… so the older people from each village displayed the respective traits more strongly.

Can you draw any parallels to the world of watch collecting already? Hold those thoughts for now. 

Cynicism hinders the ability to trust

By definition, a cynic focuses on the negative aspects of human nature and therefore is bound to have difficulty trusting that others have good intentions. There is often a misplaced belief that cynics are people who are “wise” or put differently, have “glimpsed the truth of humanity”. Cynics are seemingly able to see the “true nature” of people and don’t regularly fall for lies and deceit.

Jamal Zaki explains, the opposite is true! He has done studies which instead reveal cynical individuals to have trouble detecting lies. They assume that liars are all around them and therefore constantly misjudge people. What’s worse, this creates a negative cycle which goes like this: cynic will mistrust incorrectly → so cynic will then mistreat people who don’t deserve it → cynic will then alienate others as a result → this leads them to treat cynic badly → this affirms cynic’s original assessment that cynicism was justified! 

Cynicism erodes empathy

To be more precise, cynicism and empathy are inversely correlated: more cynicism → less empathy. Sorry if that seemed like a condescending sentence, but just wanted to be crystal clear, lol! Empathy is apparently Jamil Zaki’s specialty, having done many studies on the topic. The key relationship he draws out is between respect and empathy.

Cynicism → lack of empathy → poor outcomes

Without empathy, cynics might observe the following outcomes:

  • Difficulty understanding the impact of their actions. Behaviours which arise from cynical beliefs make it difficult to understand the consequences of any actions taken. Cynics fail to connect the dots, and this just fuels their cynicism further.

  • Being overly judgemental. Cynics can be highly critical of those around them, and even of themselves. They often struggle to understand the potential reasons that underlie what they perceive as imperfections or flaws.

  • Unable to maintain good relationships. Lacking empathy, a cynic’s disrespect eventually causes tensions and conflict to arise. This further isolates these cynics.

  • Being less inclined to help and cooperate with others. The fishing village example is a perfect example of this. Cynical people can create an anti-social environment devoid of cooperation. This individualistic society traps people in a world where everyone behaves selfishly.

  • Poor communication. If a cynic doesn’t share how they feel, nobody knows they have a problem to address. When nobody knows they have a problem, they begin to build up resentment and start to believe that other people are out to get them, As before, this is a vicious cycle. 

It can’t be changed, therefore it can’t be fixed

A cynic’s worst trap is an inherent belief that certain (perceived) negatives can’t be changed. People are all liars. Human nature is decidedly evil. People are just inherently selfish. The world is always going to be riddled with conflict. Authorised dealers are all snakes. (LOL!) “That’s how it is” and the cynic is “wise” as a cynical person for knowing these ‘facts’ or truisms.

Now, granted, we can’t possibly fix severe issues with sheer optimism. What Zaki does explain, is that cynicism is not the sole root of many of the world’s problems. His key message here is that is is impossible to change our harmful practices and broken belief systems if we hold on to the belief that they exist because people are selfish and evil. To improve the world’s difficulties, we first have to trust that they can be changed for the better.

Skepticism still has value. Requiring evidence for what we are told is not a bad thing… trust but verify, sure. What we ought to avoid is taking it too far and entering the realm of cynicism. Noticing kindness, goodness, and compassion in the world is crucial to believe in the potential for collective transformation and improvement. It also allows us to collaborate for positive change better.

Once again, it is worth going back to the study on the two fishing villages. We want to avoid an individualistic mindset where competition and distrust reign supreme. We want what the sea-fishermen have: a sense of cooperation, organisation, and a duty of care to one another. In order to foster that environment we need to swerve the cynicism and adopt a more positive outlook. 

Concluding thoughts

I’ll be the first to admit that in the past, I have been guilty of some undue cynicism as a watch collector. In recent times, and after hearing this TED talk, I realise I have found myself in a small village of ‘sea fishermen’, or at least the watch-collecting equivalent of like-minded collectors. 

This is a handful of collectors who seem to believe in the core values of cooperation and care for others. Don’t get me wrong… they still get turned on by influencing others to spend ungodly sums of money on watches… but they are happy to pay it forward too. Today, when getting a hot watch can translate into instant profit, it has become increasingly difficult to get any assistance from other collectors. You might find it hard to believe, but some people out there are still happy to help a fellow collector get their hands on a highly desirable watch (rather than procure it for themselves, and make a profit). 

This brings me to my point… relationships matter, and trust matters. From a personal point of view, if a fellow collector was willing to help me obtain a watch I really want (and in the process, forego a significant profit), then I ought to respect their kindness by understanding the nature of the unwritten social contract not to flip it. Many might argue that it is their money which was spent, and therefore it is their property to do with as they please… and that’s the exact attitude which you would expect from the lake-fishermen in the story above. When it is ‘every man for himself’, then it is infinitely worse for everyone. 

You might think I am on hard drugs writing this stuff… but I am speaking from experience. I have helped a handful of people get watches which I could have made heft profits on. I personally have bought most of my watches with some sort of help from friends, who could easily have exploited me for a quick buck if they chose to. 

Now don’t get me wrong; I am not so naïve to think that this mentality can become widespread across all watch collectors… just like any person can’t possibly have 500 ‘close friends’, I think these ‘circles of trust’ will never be very large – but where possible, it makes sense to have a few close circles of watch-collector friends who collect at a similar level (price point, access etc), who you can help obtain watches, and who might help you obtain watches. The mutual respect and trust can only grow over time, and bad actors will be ejected quite quickly and easily. 


Originally published at ScrewDownCrown on February 28, 2022

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