Character  &  Context

The Science of Who We Are and How We Relate
Editors: Mark Leary, Shira Gabriel, Brett Pelham
May 15, 2019

Entitled People - What to Expect and How to Deal With Them

by Emily Zitek
Man with hand out

We have all encountered someone with a heightened sense of entitlement. The customer who tries to return merchandise he damaged for a full refund. The student who demands an “A” despite not doing good work. The employee who complains about not getting a promotion even though she does not deserve one. The celebrity who asks “don’t you know who I am?” when told that there are no available tables at a restaurant.

Researchers in the field of psychology who study entitled individuals define entitlement as a personally characteristic in which someone has a pervasive sense of deservingness. People high in entitlement believe that they should get what they want because of who they are—and their sense of deservingness is not based on what others would consider to be good reasons.  Entitled individuals think they deserve more than other people, even when they really aren’t better than others are.  Some people feel quite entitled overall, but people’s sense of entitlement can also fluctuate, and there can be times when even a normally unentitled person feels temporarily entitled. The sources of entitlement are not fully understood, but researchers have pointed to factors such as how people are treated by their parents and other authority figures, messages from the media, and other life events, especially those that make people feel that they are special.

To study entitlement, researchers must first identify whether someone is entitled. The most common way of doing this is for researchers to ask people to report their own level of entitlement. People rate how much they agree with statements such as “I honestly think I am just more deserving than others,” and the more strongly people agree, the more entitled researchers consider them to be. And, yes, some people actually admit that they have a sense of entitlement! After identifying someone’s degree of entitlement, the researchers then go on to observe how this person behaves.

One major conclusion from the research that other researchers and I have conducted is that, not surprisingly, other people often have difficulty dealing with entitled individuals. In fact, interacting with highly entitled people can lower your well-being. People with a sense of entitlement are more likely to create conflict, behave dishonestly, and act selfishly. In one study, entitled individuals were even more likely to take candy from children! Entitled people are also less likely to apologize for their mistakes and to follow instructions.

The people who interact with entitled individuals are not the only ones who suffer the effects of entitlement. It is also difficult to be an entitled person. Entitled people have high expectations that often go unmet, which can lead to disappointment and psychological distress. Entitled individuals are also more likely to have difficulty maintaining positive relationships with other people, and they often believe they are being treated unfairly.

Although feeling entitled can create problems, there are also some advantages. Research shows  that entitled people are sometimes better at creative problem solving, and entitled people may also perform better in certain types of negotiations. When entitled people ask for what they want, sometimes they actually get it, whether it’s deserved or not. And because entitled people have a high view of themselves, they may be less likely to let others take advantage of them. Thus, being entitled can sometimes be a benefit, particularly when it is not essential for the entitled person to maintain positive long-term relationships.  

So what should we do when we encounter an entitled individual? It is hard to change someone’s personality, and research indicates that it is particularly difficult to make someone feel or act less entitled. But we can do things to avoid reinforcing someone’s sense of entitlement. For example, when entitled people make unwarranted demands, it might be better not to give in, because doing so may make them even more certain that their entitlement is justified. And when saying “no” to entitled people, it may help to explain why your refusal is fair, because perceptions of unfairness are linked to even more entitled behavior in the future. (Of course, entitled people are unlikely to think something that doesn’t benefit them is fair, but it doesn’t hurt to try.)

Finally, instead of trying to make people feel less entitled, perhaps we can capitalize on the advantages of their sense of entitlement. For example, if there is something you really want, send an entitled person to ask for it because this person will not be afraid to make demands. Sometimes it is important to fight for something, and the fight might be more successful if the people who make the request feel fully entitled to get what they want. It helps to keep in mind that although entitlement has many negative consequences, it is not all bad.


For further reading:

Grubbs, J. B., & Exline, J. J. (2016). Trait entitlement: A cognitive-personality source of vulnerability to psychological distress. Psychological Bulletin, 142, 1204–1226.

Zitek, E. M., & Jordan, A. H. (2019). Psychological entitlement predicts failure to follow instructions. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 10, 172–180.

 

Emily Zitek is an Associate Professor of Organizational Behavior at the Cornell University School of Industrial and Labor Relations who conducts research on personality, social hierarchy, and discrimination.

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Why is this blog called Character & Context?

Everything that people think, feel, and do is affected by some combination of their personal characteristics and features of the social context they are in at the time. Character & Context explores the latest insights about human behavior from research in personality and social psychology, the scientific field that studies the causes of everyday behaviors.  

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