Are the better educated less cynical?

by Katherine Sullivan

What is the story?

This blog is about political cynicism, which is defined as a “mistrust generalized from particular leaders or political groups to the political process as a whole – a process perceived to corrupt the persons who participate in it and that draws corrupt persons as participants” by Capella and Jamieson (1997; 166). Cynicism is an important attitude that may explain lack of interest in politics and may adversely affect political participation.

I examine the relationship between education and cynicism. The hypothesis to be tested is that cynicism decreases with education (Agger, Goldstein & Pearl 1961). But more specifically I wish to determine whether the relationship is linear or not.


I use surveys from the Making Electoral Democracy Work (MEDW) to examine the relationship between levels of education and cynicism during 6 regional and national elections in three democracies: Canada, France and Spain in 2011 and 2012.

Cynicism is measured with the survey item asking respondents to what extent they agree with the statement: “Politicians make campaign promises they have no intention of keeping”. Those who agree strongly are given a score of 1, those who agree somewhat a score of .66, those who disagree somewhat a score of .33 and those who disagree strongly a score of 0. The mean cynicism score in our pooled data set is 0.82.

Education is divided into three categories: the less educated, the moderately educated and the better educated. The first category ranges from “no schooling” to “completed high school”, the second from “college” to a “bachelor degree” and the third from a master’s degree and above. The overall percentages of less, moderately, and better educated in the pooled data set are 15%, 44% and 41% respectively.

Who is most cynical?

 Table 1. Levels of cynicism and education


Canada Spain


Less educated

0.026*** 0.017 0.037* 0.005

Better educated


-0.052*** -0.001



0.011* 0.010 0.007




0.001*** -0.001




0.780*** 0.828***


N 5999 2236 1892


*p<0.10 **p<0.05 ***p<0.01

Table 1 shows the findings of an OLS regression with the dependent variable being the respondent’s score on the cynicism variable. There are two education dummy variables for the less and the better educated (the reference category being the moderately educated). The findings support the hypothesis that cynicism decreases with education. This is particularly apparent in the pooled results, which merge results from all three democracies (Canada, France and Spain). The relationship however is weak, as the difference between the better and the less educated is only .05 on the 0 to 1 scale. Furthermore, the patterns vary across countries. Education has no impact in France while the only significant difference is between the better educated and all others in Canada and the less educated and all others in Spain.

Table 1 also shows a tiny gender effect of .01, women being slightly more cynical. Finally cynicism also increases with age, at least in Canada and France. The predicted cynicism score is .05 higher for someone who is 70 years old than for a 20 year-old respondent. The impact of age is about the same magnitude as that of education.

These results indicate that the most cynical citizens are the old and less educated, and the least cynical are the young and better-educated citizens.

This entry was posted in Blog. Bookmark the permalink. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.