Being disrespectfully treated by others can lead to cynicism and treat others with disrespect


An international team of scientists has found out that being treated disrespectfully can lead people to develop cynical beliefs about human nature.

Cynical beliefs about human nature, in turn, contribute to again being treated disrespectfully by others – and behaving disrespectfully towards others oneself.

Through elaborate cross-sectional, longitudinal and experimental studies, the scientists showed that disrespect and cynicism constitute a vicious circle.

The joint publication by the social psychologist Dr Daniel Ehlebracht (University of Cologne) as well as Dr Olga Stavrova (Tilburg University, Netherlands) and Dr Kathleen D. Vohs (University of Minnesota, USA), is now available in an online version and will soon appear in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.

The researchers used different methods: They proved the causal effect of experienced disrespect on cynicism as well as the opposite case, i.e., of cynicism on experiencing disrespect, in a total of five experimental studies with 1,149 participants, and one diary study with 462 participants.

A cross-sectional analysis of data from the European Social Survey (ESS) with representative population samples of European countries (a total of 53,333 respondents) showed a clear connection between experienced disrespect and cynicism in 28 out of 29 countries.

The researchers used different methods: They proved the causal effect of experienced disrespect on cynicism as well as the opposite case, i.e., of cynicism on experiencing disrespect, in a total of five experimental studies with 1,149 participants, and one diary study with 462 participants.

A longitudinal analysis of data from the US Health and Retirement Study (HRS) with a total of 19,922 respondents showed that, on the one hand, experienced disrespect predicted the development of cynicism over a period of four years.

On the other hand, harboring cynical beliefs about human nature also made future experiences of disrespect more likely.

Daniel Ehlebracht remarked: ‘When people are treated disrespectfully by others, they often tend to generalize their negative experiences and unwarrantedly consider other people to be immoral, unfair and selfish in general.

However, such a distorted image of humanity can paradoxically lead to provoking renewed bad experiences with other people and also to a tendency to treat others badly oneself.’

According to Ehlebracht, the scientists’ new findings can also help to understand why cynicism and disrespect towards others are on the rise in many societies.

Although adults have been the predominant focus of systematic investigations of legal attitudes, opinions about the justice system begin to form at an early age (Tyler & Trinker, 2017). Adolescence, in particular, is a critical developmental time when experiences with legal authorities shape longer‐term views of the legitimacy of the justice system (Fagan & Tyler, 2005; Hagan, Shedd, & Payne, 2005).

In general, research on youth attitudes toward the justice system and its actors indicate that youth espouse more negative views than adults (Hurst & Frank, 2000; Leiber, Nalla, & Farnworth, 1998; Taylor, Turner, Esbensen, & Winfree, 2001). However, the question of how these attitudes are constructed by youth has received limited attention (Sindall, McCarthy, & Brunton‐Smith, 2017).

One promising line of research investigates the influence of contact with legal authorities, in particular police, as a mechanism by which youth develop overarching beliefs about the justice system (Leiber et al., 1998; Rusinko, Johnson, & Hornung, 1978; Taylor et al., 2001).

National data on police–public contact show that adolescents and young adults aged 16–24 years are more likely to experience contact with the police than any other group. Out of the roughly 53 million U.S. residents that had personal interactions with police in 2015, 16–24 year‐olds accounted for 41.3 percent of interactions (Davis, Whyde, & Langton, 2018). No national data capture broad trends on police contact at earlier ages.

However, the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting Program provides arrest data for youth under the age of 16, which give some indications about broader contact trends. In 2017, 253,985 youth aged 15 or below were arrested, compared with 583,102 youth 16–18 years of age (Table 38). Among youth under 16, those aged 13–15 made up the vast majority of arrests (Federal Bureau of Investigation, 2017), indicating that while the frequency of police contact is somewhat lower in early adolescence than in later adolescence, it is substantial and merits further examination.

Police–youth contact is characterized by several key features. Nationally, adolescents and young adults are more likely to experience police‐initiated contacts than to initiate contact with the police of their own volition (Davis et al., 2018), a trend confirmed by local data (Ayers & Borowsky, 2008; Langton & Durose, 2011; Tyler, Fagan, & Geller, 2014).

Moreover, as a result of proactive policing practices characterized by intensive enforcement against low‐level offenses, the vast majority of interactions between police and youth result from relatively minor infractions, such as trespass or other quality‐of‐life laws, that often do not result in notable legal consequences for youth (Fagan, Davies, & Carlis, 2012; Zimring, 2011). Perhaps for this reason, youth are least likely to perceive a street‐stop as having been legitimate compared to other groups (Davis et al., 2018).

Perceptions of legitimacy are a corollary of legal cynicism, which describes an evaluation of the justice system and its actors as illegitimate, unresponsive, and ill equipped to ensure public safety (Kirk & Papachristos, 2011).

Both lower levels of legitimacy and higher levels of legal cynicism have been associated with decreased trust in and co‐operation with legal authorities and increased criminal behavior (Fagan & Tyler, 2005; Reisig, Wolfe, & Holtfreter, 2011; Sampson & Bartusch, 1998).

A significant body of work has shown that legal cynicism diminishes police legitimacy, which may hinder the specific type of collaboration and partnership between community members and police that are effective in making neighborhoods safer (Delgado, 2008; Howell, 2009; Nivette, Eisner, Malti, & Ribeaud, 2015).

The distinctions between legitimacy and legal cynicism are worth elaborating as the two constructs are highly related. Critically, while legitimacy has been theorized in terms of individual trust and obligation toward an authority and is typically measured by assessing attitudes toward said authority (e.g., police), legal cynicism centers on the internalization of law‐related norms and assesses normative beliefs about the legal system (Trinkner & Cohn, 2014).

As such, legal cynicism is a broader construct that taps into overarching, internalized perceptions of the justice system and the extent to which the rule of law is considered binding (Sampson & Bartusch, 1998).

Moreover, in adolescence, legal cynicism and legitimacy can be viewed as two dimensions of legal socialization, which includes the broader developmental task of self‐definition in relation to authority figures (Piquero, Fagan, Mulvey, Steinberg, & Odgers, 2005). Legal cynicism and legitimacy are two mechanisms by which we may be able to understand adolescents’ compliance with rules and the law (Sunshine & Tyler, 2003; Trinkner & Cohn, 2014; Tyler, 1990; Tyler & Huo, 2002), and willingness to assist police (Hinds, 2009).

Adolescence is the time in individuals’ lives when experiences with legal authorities, particularly the police, is most likely (Brunson & Weitzer, 2011; Tyler & Huo, 2002). Moreover, the attitudes formed toward those authorities remain relatively stable over time (Piquero et al., 2005). For this reason, it is critical to examine how young people experience interactions with the police and how such interactions shape lasting views on the justice system.


Interactions with the police are distinguished by situational features that may impact evaluations of the contact. Such features include whether the contact was experienced directly or vicariously, the process by which the interaction unfolded, and the outcome of the interaction.

Direct versus vicarious police contact

Direct police contact, particularly the perceived quality of such contact, impacts evaluations of the police (Nivette et al., 2015; Slocum, Ann Wiley, & Esbensen, 2016; Tyler & Huo, 2002). For example, Nivette et al. (2015) found that youth who experienced a direct encounter with the police reported higher levels of legal cynicism controlling for demographic factors including race as well as youth‐reported delinquency.

Yet, contact with the police can also be experienced vicariously through observed police interactions. Research examining the impact of vicarious police contact is limited and has primarily focused on adult samples.

However, young people similarly experience the system contacts of family members, neighbors, and peers that may further shape perceptions of the legal system (Brunson & Weitzer, 2009; Gau & Brunson, 2010; Rosenbaum, Schuck, Costello, Hawkins, & Ring, 2005). In fact, vicarious experiences may be a more routine occurrence in youth’s lives than direct police interactions (Gau & Brunson, 2010), and appear to affect perceptions of policing substantially (Hurst, Frank, & Browning, 2000).

A perhaps surprising finding among both adults and adolescents is that vicarious experiences of police contact can be potentially more impactful on negative attitudes toward police than direct experiences (Hurst & Frank, 2000; Rosenbaum et al., 2005). For example, Rosenbaum et al. (2005) found that exposure to vicarious, but not direct police contact predicted changes in negative attitudes toward police over the course of a year.

Notably, while the potentially divergent effects of direct and vicarious police contact have been examined in relation to attitudes about police, the relationship between types of police contact and broader evaluations of the justice system, including legal cynicism, have lagged behind.

A recent study by Fine et al. (2016) confirms the importance of investigating the relative influence of direct and vicarious police contact on wider assessments of the justice system. In this study, even after accounting for direct experiences with police, adolescents whose peers were arrested reported more negative attitudes toward the broader justice system than those who were not exposed to a peer’s arrest.

Previous research confirms the potential for vicarious police contact to be an impactful experience in the development of broader views of the justice system; however, no studies that we are aware of have examined the impact of type of police contact on levels of legal cynicism directly. This study will examine the relative influence of both direct and vicarious police contact on legal cynicism while accounting for other situational features of the police interaction.

Procedurally just policing

Another factor that influences an individual’s attitudes toward the law is the use of fair procedures. Procedural justice theory has been offered as one explanation for why people are willing to co‐operate and respect an authority’s power, arguing that community members are more likely to respect and co‐operate with an authority if the processes by which the authority operates are perceived as just and fair (Tyler, 2000; Tyler & Blader, 2003; Tyler & Fagan, 2008).

Compliance with authorities is therefore “powerfully influenced by people’s subjective judgments about the fairness of the procedures through which the police and the courts exercise their authority” (Tyler, 2003, p 283). Several dimensions of police contact shape individual’s perceptions of fairness of police procedures, including

(a) the opportunity to have a voice in an interaction;

(b) neutral and consistent decision‐making by police,

(c) trust in the motivations behind police actions, and

(d) and overall respectful treatment (Tyler, 1990; Tyler & Blader, 2003; Tyler & Huo, 2002).

Police actions contrary to promoting these dimensions of procedural justice have been found to undermine perceptions of police legitimacy and acceptance of police authority. For example, Tyler et al. (2014) used the broad construct of stop intrusion, which includes disrespectful treatment, harsh or insulting language, searches of bags, patting/frisking, threats of force and actual use of force among other situational features of a police stop (pp 782–784) to show that such “intrusive” features of police stops undermine legitimacy (Tyler et al., 2014).

While much of the research on procedural justice has focused on its impact on legitimacy attitudes, research examining the relationship between procedural justice and legal cynicism is limited (Carr, Napolitano, & Keating, 2007; Sampson & Bartusch, 1998).

Overall trends, however, seem to indicate that greater perceptions of procedural justice lead to lower levels of legal cynicism. Most recently, Trinkner and Cohn (2014) found a causal relationship between procedural justice and legal cynicism among 11th graders.

Specifically, when provided vignettes about interactions with police officers, youth randomly assigned to a condition where the officer gave their character a voice in the interaction rated the officer as having more legitimacy and rated themselves as having lower levels of legal cynicism than youth randomly assigned to a condition where the officer did not give their character a voice (Trinkner and Cohn (2014).

The existing evidence suggests that incorporating procedurally just strategies in encounters with youth may improve attitudes and behaviors toward police, create opportunities to enhance police legitimacy and improve overall perception of the justice system, ultimately resulting in lower levels of legal cynicism (Hinds, 2007; Lee, Steinberg, & Piquero, 2010). This study adapts Tyler et al.’s (2014) concept of stop intrusion by probing the association between youth’s legal cynicism and three categories of intrusion that could be considered particularly contrary to procedurally just policing within the context of police–youth contact that typically occurs for low level offenses: Harsh language (including racial slurs and threats of force), frisking (including physical searches of person and property), and use of force.

Stop outcome

Another factor that may impact evaluations of legitimacy is the outcome of a police stop. A substantial literature has found that communities with lower socioeconomic status and communities of color experience a disproportionate and intensive police presence (Fagan, Geller, Davies, & West, 2010; Hagan et al., 2005; Schulhofer, Tyler, & Huq, 2011; Zimring, 2011). Moreover, there is evidence that aggressive enforcement curbing relatively minor infractions is characterized by high error rates.

For example, police–public interactions resulting from such policing strategies do not typically result in arrest, ticketing, or the seizure of illegal items (Alpert, Macdonald, & Dunham, 2005; Fagan, 2010). By extension, outcomes of police contacts that suggest that a stop may have been unfounded (e.g., no action is taken) could undermine perceptions of the legitimacy and justness of the contact. In attempting to isolate the associations between aspects of procedurally just policing and legal cynicism, this study accounts for the influence of stop outcome, which may contribute to legal cynicism.

Individual‐level influences on youth’s legal attitudes

It has been well‐established that individual‐level characteristics, such as age, race, and involvement in delinquent activities substantially impact perceptions of the police and legal attitudes more broadly. In general, individuals who identify as racial minorities tend to hold more negative views of police compared to their White counterparts (Peck, 2015) and experience higher levels of legal cynicism (Kirk & Papachristos, 2011; Sampson & Bartusch, 1998), findings that extend across age (Brunson & Weitzer, 2009; Leiber et al., 1998).

Overall, youth attitudes toward the police are more negative than those of adults (Hurst & Frank, 2000; Leiber et al., 1998; Taylor et al., 2001), and involvement in delinquency is a strong predictor of legal cynicism (Nivette et al., 2015; Trinkner & Cohn, 2014). For example, Trinkner and Cohn (2014) found that youth who rated themselves as having higher levels of legal cynicism also endorsed higher levels of delinquent behaviors. Many studies recognize sex as an important potential predictor of legal attitudes, and among adults, women have been shown to report lower legal cynicism than men (Kirk & Papachristos, 2011). However, only limited work has systematically examined sex differences in youth’s legal attitudes, focusing primarily on perceptions of police. Results are mixed. Studies have found male youth endorse overall more negative views of police, report higher rates of mistreatment by police, and express more fear of police than female youth (Brunson & Miller, 2006; Nordberg, Twis, Stevens, & Hatcher, 2018; Taylor et al., 2001). Yet, other studies have found no differences between the sexes (Griffiths & Winfree, 1982) or even that female youth hold less favorable views about the trustworthiness and effectiveness of police (Hurst & Frank, 2000).

Macro‐level influences on police contact

Police contact does not occur in a vacuum—it takes place in ecological settings characterized by structural characteristics and collective experiences that shape individual expectations of police and interpretations of officers’ behaviors. In general, better neighborhood conditions have been associated with more positive attitudes toward the police and lower legal cynicism (Jesilow, Meyer, & Nazi Namazzi, 1995; Kirk & Papachristos, 2011; Sampson & Bartusch, 1998). For example, perceptions of neighborhood safety and collective efficacy have been associated with higher confidence in police (Cao, Frank, & Cullen, 1996; Reisig & Parks, 2000; Schafer, Huebner, & Bynum, 2003) and lower legal cynicism (Kirk & Papachristos, 2011). At the same time, perceptions of neighborhood disorder may negatively impact perceptions of safety and undermine confidence in the police (Brick, Taylor, & Esbensen, 2009; Cao et al., 1996; Hurst & Frank, 2000; Reisig & Parks, 2000).

Moreover, individuals residing in areas characterized by concentrated disadvantage or high crime are typically more likely to experience a prominent police presence and have interactions with police (Terrill & Reisig, 2003). Interactions with police in such neighborhoods are often evaluated as less satisfactory (Reisig & Parks, 2000) and perceived to be more negative and coercive (Smith, 1986; Terrill & Reisig, 2003; Weitzer, 1999). Overall, neighborhood context appears to have a substantial, complex influence on attitudes toward the police. It is critical to account for the influences of such collective experiences on perceptions of police contact and broader beliefs about the justice system.


The disproportionate exposure of adolescents to police may result in high levels of legal cynicism that meaningfully frame individuals’ understanding of the legitimacy of the legal system into adulthood. However, the nature and impact of police contact on youth younger than 16 has received only limited attention. Our study expands the literature on police–youth contact in early adolescence by investigating the trends in direct and vicarious police contact as well as the influence of situational, process, and outcome factors of police contact on legal cynicism.

We examine data from the age 15 assessment of the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study (FFCWS) to gain a better understanding of how direct and vicarious police contact influence adolescents’ legal cynicism. Based on procedural justice theory, we examine the specific features of police interactions that may protect against the adverse influence of routine police exposure on youth’s legal cynicism.

To discern the influence of situational aspects of police contact on adolescents’ cynical beliefs about the justice system from other factors that have been linked to perceptions of the legal system, this study accounts for demographic characteristics, self‐reported delinquency, stop outcome, neighborhood violence, and neighborhood collective efficacy.

Based on previous research, our study hypothesizes that (H1) situational features of the police interaction will be associated with youth’s legal cynicism after accounting for individual and neighborhood effects as well as stop outcome. Specifically, we expect that youth’s perceptions of procedural justice will be associated with lower legal cynicism while stops characterized by various forms of intrusion (i.e., harsh language, frisking or use of force) will be associated with higher legal cynicism.

We also hypothesize that (H2) demographic characteristics and self‐reported delinquency will be significantly associated with legal cynicism. Specifically, we expect African American and Hispanic youth to experience more legal cynicism than White youth. Youth endorsing higher rates of delinquency will also experience higher legal cynicism. Finally, we hypothesize that (H3) neighborhood characteristics along the dimensions of violence and collective efficacy will be associated with legal cynicism. Specifically, we expect that youth living in more violent neighborhoods will have higher levels of legal cynicism, while youth living in neighborhoods characterized by higher levels of collective efficacy will have lower levels of legal cynicism.

University of Cologne


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