What We Mean When We Talk About Entitlement

New data shows it's not always a negative.

Posted Jan 15, 2018

Kues/Shutterstock
Source: Kues/Shutterstock

Entitlement is an enduring personality trait, characterized by the belief that one deserves preferences and resources that others do not. Like boundaries, we recognize entitlement chiefly by its effect on us: envy, anger, and frustration. "Why do they think they deserve it any more than I do?" we wonder. And then, "Is it them, or is it just me?"

Sometimes we mistake entitlement for a sense of self-confidence projected by competent, assured, often charismatic others. Sometimes we confuse it with narcissism, with which it's often associated, or self-absorption, which occasionally looks like the same thing. And sometimes, according to research, a bit of a fleeting, situational rush of entitlement can be a good thing; it can increase creativity and lead to novel, unusual solutions to problems, the kind of out-of-the-box thinking that organizations and employers encourage.

Whether deserved or not, a sense of entitlement enables people to think and act differently from others, and the more they do so, the more willing and able they are to generate creative ideas. On the negative side, a chronically entitled disposition may diminish the motivation to put in extra effort. When we talk about lazy, entitled millennials, particularly those who haven’t earned their As or promotions through their own hard work, those are the people we mean.

Pejoratively labeling an individual or a generation as entitled sometimes reveals more about us than it does about them—our unwillingness to recognize another’s meritorious worth or hard-earned success, which indicates how often we think with our beliefs rather than about them. (A good example is how Hilary Clinton was viewed as entitled when she ran for political office, but not when she was actually in it.)

Whether deserved or not, highly entitled people are less concerned about what is socially acceptable or beneficial, according to researchers at Harvard and Cornell whose studies of 99 undergraduates and 98 MBA candidates yielded another finding: Entitled people don’t follow instructions, because they see them as unfair. “They would rather take a loss themselves than agree to something unfair,” said the authors, who correlated high scores on entitlement measurements with difficulty complying with the “rules” of the experimental task. Attempting to understand why students ignored them (selfishness, control, or punishment), they found that fairness was the primary reason.

When people feel entitled, they want to be different from others. But just as frequently they come across as indifferent to others. That’s why they often provoke such negative responses in those they encounter, especially those they don’t personally know.

That may be the most significant fact about entitlement; that silent signal that our negative feelings have been triggered by it. Recognizing when our own sense of entitlement is driving us helps us understand our need to balk at social convention, rebel against limitations on our autonomy or prohibitions on our preferred behavior. Marching to our own drummer is one thing; knowing when that sound affects others like chalk on a blackboard is another. 

It's often said of the baby boomers that they felt privileged and lucky rather than entitled, while their kids and grandkids feel entitled, whether they are or not. And frequently parents are blamed for fostering that trait in their kids by giving them everything they want, when they want it, and colluding in the belief that they deserve it.

It's an unfair rap to those who want their kids to be successful and do the best they can. It's not up to us to tell them their dreams are unreachable or their expectations are too high. Instead, we would be wiser to support their efforts to achieve them.

References

Zitek and Vincent, "Feelings of Entitlement Enhance Creativity," Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 2015, and 

"Entitled people don't follow instructions because they see them as unfair," SPSP News, 12/20/17