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Cynicism was originally the philosophy of a group of ancient Greekss called the Cynics (main article), founded by Antisthenes.

Nowadays the word generally describes, somewhat pejoratively, the opinions of those inclined to disbelieve in human sincerity, in virtue, or in altruism: individuals who maintain that only self-interest motivates human behavior. A modern cynic typically has a highly contemptuous attitude towards social norms, especially those which serve more of a ritualistic purpose than a practical one, and will tend to dismiss a substantial proportion of popular beliefs, conventional morality and accepted wisdom as "bullshit".

In informal use, derived from the meanings described hereabove, cynicism may refer to heartless calculating behavior or thinking. Someone who has no faith in the goodness of other human beings may have less restraints to behave in a calculating way without compassion but this doesn't have to be the case.

Despite the negative portrayal of cynics, some would argue that such people simply "refuse to look through rosy-tinted spectacles" and do not fear to demolish popular beliefs no matter how sacred society considers such alleged misconceptions. Cynics themselves tend to take this view, regarding themselves as enlightened free thinkers, and their critics as deluded social pretenders who "bury their heads in the sand". However, an excess of cynicism in an individual can cause social or psychological difficulties when cynics see themselves as depersonalised and self-serving inhabitants of a meaningless, fictitious, and shallow world.

One behavioural indicator of profound cynicism is an absence of participation in defence of principles. The cynic may look as though they are timidly adopting a policy of "Don't get involved, it only brings you trouble," but their inactivity flows from a deeper belief that nothing can be changed anyway: "Don't get involved, you won't make any difference anyway. Why waste effort on a futile cause?"

Critics of cynics often regard cynicism as a form of nihilism and as damaging to the function of life.