The Ubiquity of Envy Is Fueling an Epidemic of Entitlement

The pervasiveness of envious personality types drives the entitlement epidemic.

Posted Sep 19, 2016

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The September 2016 study, "Humans Display a Reduced Set of Consistent Behavioral Phenotypes in Dyadic Games,” appears in the journal Science Advances.

"Envious" Is the Most Predominant of Four Personality Traits

This study analyzed the responses of 541 volunteers to hundreds of various social dilemmas designed to create a dynamic that would lead to collaboration or conflict with others, based on individual or collective interests. 

Four Basic Personality Traits 

  1. Envious
  2. Pessimistic 
  3. Optimistic
  4. Trusting

Of the four personality groups that emerged, optimists were characterized by a tendency to believe that they and their partner would make the best choice that was equally beneficial for both of them. Pessimists were inclined to select the option which they viewed as the lesser of two evils. The trusting group appeared to be hardwired for collaboration and cooperation. They also didn’t really care if they won or lost. Lastly, there was the most predominant group of envious players whose prime driving force was to be better and have more than everyone else at all costs.

A few days ago, I wrote a Psychology Today blog post about a new literature review of over 170 academic papers by researchers at Case Western Reserve University which identified that entitlement often leads to chronic disappointment, unmet expectations, and a habitual, self-reinforced cycle of anger, distress, and malcontent.

Entitlement is a personality trait marked by exaggerated feelings of deservingness, specialness, and unrealistic expectations. In extreme cases, entitlement is also characterized by an overarching sense of superiority.

How Are Envy and Entitlement Intertwined? 

This morning, as I was reading about the new game theory statistics showing almost one-third of a study population being driven primarily by envy, I couldn't help but see a correlation to the sense of entitlement that is sweeping our country. In my mind, feeling envious and entitlement go hand in hand. They are two sides of the same coin.

I’m definitely not an ascetic saint, nor am I a Buddhist monk who has achieved nekkhamma, which is a state of non-attachment and complete freedom from “lust, craving, and desires." Obviously, I have traits of envy and entitlement, like everybody else. That said, when I was in college, Sinéad O’Connor released an album, I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got, which caused a lightbulb to go off in my head during a pivotal stage of development and became a mantra that I aspire to live by to this day.

Photo by Christopher Bergland
Source: Photo by Christopher Bergland

My grandfather, on my mom's side, was a salt-of-the-earth Yankee who lived by the motto, "Want Not. Need Not." My mother lives by this same Spartan creed, which was instilled in her by her dad. In my mom's rustic New England kitchen, she has a framed cross-stitch embedded with this motto. A few years ago, I asked her to stitch me a replica, which I keep in my kitchen now, too, as a reminder of the pitfalls of lusting after extrinsic rewards or material possessions. 

Although the recent discovery that envious people significantly outnumber the pessimistic, optimistic, and trusting is disheartening...there is a silver lining. Pinpointing four specific personality traits makes it easy to identify and describe a target mindset and behavior associated with optimism and trusting, which have the power to negate envy.

One of the problems with putting the brakes on the entitlement epidemic spreading is that nobody seems to have tangible, actionable advice. For example, Joshua Grubbs, primary author of the recent Case Western study on entitlement, points out that there’s no clear path or solution to help someone stop feeling a sense of entitlement.

Although other studies have found that nurturing an explanatory style of humility and gratitude can serve to break the cycle of entitlement, Grubbs isn’t convinced that gratitude alone is the antidote. “Yet, this may be too much to ask," Grubbs concluded. "It's often unacceptable for entitled people to consider they are not the exception to the rule."

Liberate Yourself From Envy By Declaring "I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got"

So, what can we do—as a society and individually—to break the vicious cycle of feeling envious and a sense entitlement? I don’t know the answer to this question based solely on empirical evidence. But, I do have a hunch that by tagging the character traits of other personality types such as pragmatic optimism and magnanimity that you can make a conscious effort to become less envious.

Simply acknowledging that the current zeitgeist in our society is to be Machiavellian, envious, and entitled, is a call to action to pull against the cultural force of these trends. Also, as Grubbs points, entitlement quickly leads to disappointment, malcontent, and anger. So, by detaching from envy and entitlement, you're actually doing yourself a favor by creating peace of mind and a sense of satisfaction. 

There is an important caveat: There's nothing romantic about living in poverty. Clearly, hundreds of millions of Americans who are part of the 99% feel marginalized by institutionalized socioeconomic stratification as seen in the widening gap between the 'haves' and 'have-nots'. Many people haven't bounced back from the Great Recession. Of course, there is a tendency to have sour grapes and justifiably feel that you were robbed of what you earned (or thought you deserved) by the banking institutions and powers that be. Yes, I believe it’s unfair that the 1% holds such a disproportionate amount of wealth.

However, moving forward, in order to break the cycle of feeling dissatisfied or envious, I’ve personally decided to focus on controlling my controllables, which are primarily my mindset and attitude. At the end of the day, my explanatory style is one of the few things that is 100% in the locus of my control.

There’s no way that I will ever be a part of the 1%, and I could care less. My goal in life is to find contentment and joy through intrinsic rewards and personal relationships that have nothing to do with money, power, or materialism.

Conclusion: The Cost of Keeping Up With the Jones' Takes a Heavy Toll

Even though there may be a knee-jerk reaction to feel envious of people who appear to have it all, I've learned from life experience that the sacrifices it takes to achieve extrinsic rewards commonly associated with success usually aren't worth it. For example, my father was very successful in his career. He aspired to become nouveau riche and earned a lot of money. But his job made him so stressed out that it ended up taking years off his life. He died way too young of a heart attack. 

This anecdotal evidence was confirmed by another study published this week from the University of California, Irvine. The September 2016 study, "Globalization, Work, and Cardiovascular Disease," presents a new model that illustrates how economic globalization and stressful employment factors in high-income countries are contributing to the worldwide epidemic of cardiovascular disease. 

This is a reminder to be careful what you wish for in terms of envying people who seem better off than you. The grass isn't always greener. Personally, I've always been happiest living a Spartan life as opposed to being 'under the thumb of the maid' or coddled in the lap of luxury. Even though I don't have material wealth, I have my health and resilience

There is a tendency for all of us to fall into the trap of feeling envious and entitled. Hopefully, the realization that this is a double whammy that can lead to unhappiness and malcontent will inspire you to readjust your wants and needs. The burning desire to stay ahead of the Jones' can be a form of self-sabotage. On the flip side, I strongly believe there is liberation in taking a "Want Not. Need Not" worldview and reminding oneself, "I do not want what I haven't got." 

© 2016 Christopher Bergland. All rights reserved.