A recent article reviewed many studies on entitlement, which the authors summarized as "pervasive and enduring feelings of deservingness for more goods, services, or special treatment than others…with or without any dutifully earned right to those benefits."
Seth J. Gillihan Ph.D. is a clinical assistant professor of psychology in the Psychiatry Department at the University of Pennsylvania. His publications include research articles and book chapters on the effectiveness of cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) for anxiety and depression, how CBT works, and the use of brain imaging to study psychiatric disorders. Dr. Gillihan maintains a clinical practice in Haverford, PA.
Editor: Nadeem Noor
No doubt we all know people who fit this description—the student who expects a good grade without putting in the effort; the friend who always expects you to be available but is never there for you; the family member who expects to be waited on by everyone else.
The article proposes three main problems with an exaggerated sense of entitlement:
Entitlement inevitably leads to disappointment.
When a person expects everything to turn out his way (regardless of the effort he invests), he's bound to be disappointed. For example, students with high entitlement are more likely to be disappointed with their grades. Further, being overly entitled leads to broken relationships, in part because entitlement is linked to excessively high standards for others.
Disappointment leads to suffering.
When an overly entitled person's unrealistic expectations aren't met, the resulting disappointment often leads to anger and resentment. These emotional reactions tend to damage relationships, whether with a teacher, boss, family member, romantic partner, or other. As the authors note, not even God gets a free pass when expectations of entitlement are violated. Among those with a strong sense of entitlement, personal suffering is likely to lead to "hostility and frustration" toward God.
Self-protective efforts maintain entitlement.
Disappointment can threaten the ego of a highly entitled person by suggesting that he or she isn't so special after all. To protect their ego, the person is likely to blame others for the disappointment, which reinforces their sense of entitlement. For example, as the study authors note, a highly entitled person who is fired for poor job performance may blame her boss, saying he was threatened by her superior abilities. Thus what could be a corrective experience actually strengthens one's sense of specialness.
The authors of the study aren't overly optimistic that this trait can be changed, although they briefly discuss ways that therapy might address entitlement. They suggest that a therapist could explore how a person interprets expectations that aren't met.
While it's easy to see others' excessive entitlement, it can be harder to see more nuanced versions in ourselves. Most of us carry some expectation that life will be fair, that our car won't break down, that we'll have a steady income and low-cost health care, and that we'll be healthy and live until we're 90. While we can hope for these things, none of these wishes is guaranteed.
I once treated a woman who had a terrible medical crisis in the middle of her treatment. She came through it with a deep appreciation for all subsequent experiences. She described being thankful even to experience a painful medical procedure, because she knew she had almost reached the end of all experiences in this life. When we believe that life owes us nothing, we have infinite opportunities to experience gratitude—even in the midst of pain and disappointment.