The Cost of Entitlement

I loved the message of Peter Attia’s recent newsletter, where he focused on an experiment conducted by Cal Berkeley psychologist Dacher Keltner and his colleague. I also noticed that my interview with Peter, the very first show published on the Get Over Yourself podcast, has become the most downloaded show ever. Lots of backfill downloads as people discover the podcast, and Attia continues to rise in prominence with his podcast, The Drive.

Peter first heard about this Berkeley experiment while listening to an episode of Against the Rules with Michael Lewis where Keltner explained how he and his colleague had been curious about what would happen if they put a few students at a pedestrian zone (where law requires states they have the right of way over vehicles ) near the Berkeley campus. They had one student hide and record the other student attempting to cross the street. One thing that they noted was the make of each car – a smart idea, as they soon realized that those driving the less expensive cars always gave the pedestrian the right of way. But the people driving the most pricey models? 46% of them just straight up cut off the pedestrian! Unfortunately, cars mindlessly cutting off pedestrians can be as common as sunny skies in California, and thinking about how prevalent this kind of behavior made me start thinking about how widespread entitlement is these days.  

Entitlement is an important topic to explore right now, and is also particularly relevant with the college admissions scandal that was exposed earlier this year. Affluent parents bribing administrators and athletic coaches to get their kids “side door” admission into prestigious schools highlighted just how far some people will go, and how many lines can be crossed, when an entitled person demands to get their way. Especially as this scandal brought up many questions about the depth of the kids’ involvement. How many of these kids knew – and did they even care?  

It’s easier for older folks to write off all millennials as entitled narcissists in the social media age, but it’s more complex than that. On the one hand, you could argue that there are some benefits to a sense of entitlement. (Say what?!) As Forbes points out, achievement acts as a strong impetus for entitled people to work hard – they truly believe they deserve that promotion, so they’re going to do whatever they can to make it happen. You could also argue that it keeps people from taking on jobs that they are overqualified for, because they want to “hold out” for a better, more suitable position.  

But aside from that, it’s pretty hard to argue in favor of entitlement. People who have a sense of entitlement are more likely to ask for higher pay, expect special privileges, ignore or brazenly break rules, and act first and foremost for themselves only. Probably the most detrimental consequence of entitlement is the chronic disappointment it can easily lead to. As discovered by researchers at Case Western Reserve University, the chronic disappointment caused by entitlement can, in turn, manifest as clinical depression and isolation. Couple the feeling of “I deserve this” along with the expectation that you will and should get whatever it is you want, and you’ve got yourself locked in a terrible repetitive cycle of chronic disappointment and unhappiness. No wonder entitled people are so bent out of shape all the time! All that disappointment and all those unmet expectations result in emotional distress, and this emotional distress must be remedied this is where the feeling of superiority comes in handy. When an entitled person is feeling let down and upset, then nothing provides a quick boost of happiness like the reminder that you are superior to everyone! As Julie Exline, co-author of the study and a professor of psychological sciences at Case Western Reserve points out: 

“Reassurance stemming from entitlement can provide temporary relief from the very distress caused by entitlement.” 

This also brings me back to the college admissions scandal, specifically, the children of the parents involved. A big question on everyone’s minds was, “Did these kids know what was going on? And if they were, were they ok with?” It seems that it varies from family to family. Some kids were seemingly shielded from the truth by their parents, who knew they would be upset if they found out. Actress Felicity Huffman paid for her daughter’s SAT scores to be changed after she completed the test, unbeknownst to her (well, she knows now). And one suspicious daughter, whose father had paid to bribe her into USC as a lacrosse player, told her dad that she was, “worried she didn’t get in on her own merits,” with him even admitting, “She’s concerned others may view her differently.”  

Clearly many of the kids were in the dark, or at the very least, suspicious. But then there were the kids who were completely in on the whole scheme. Listen, if you rode horses in high school, but you find yourself CC’d on emails discussing how you’re going to be accepted into a college based on your prowess as a rower, then you know something is up. This is where you find some truly irresponsible parenting. It’s one thing to go behind your kid’s back and alter their test scores that already shows some serious lack of judgment and feelings of entitlement, because all those kids now know that their parent(s) didn’t believe in them, or see them as remotely capable of getting into a good college on their own. But to take it a step further, and include your child in such a deceptive scheme is only going to accomplish two things: 1) Make them feel like they aren’t good enough and 2) That it doesn’t even matter, because money, power, and privilege gives you the ability to alter the axis of the spinning globe. These are not the lessons we want to be teaching our kids about self-worth, hard-work, and humility. 

Is Entitlement Just For Millennials?  

Let’s explore this idea. Are millennials disproportionately entitled? First, take a look at the research. People in their 20s are three times more likely to develop narcissistic personality disorder than people aged 65 and above, according to a study done by the National Institute of Health. So …yeah…that doesn’t exactly help the “millennials aren’t entitled” argument. But to play devil’s advocate, try considering other factors – like plain ol’ time and life experience. People over the age of 65 may be less likely to be diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder simply because their life experience has shown them that, no, the world doesn’t revolve around them. Maybe the disorder is more frequently diagnosed among younger people because their maturity at that age renders them more likely to act from a mindset of extreme entitlement. A study published in New Zealand actually found no evidence of rising levels of entitlement among millennials, but instead, posited that entitlement is not generational, but developmental. Simply, the older we get, the less entitled we feel. 

Bottom line is: no one is immune to this kind of behavior. And it’s interesting to trace sources of everyday frustration to feeling entitled. I have been inspired to take a closer look at my mindset as I drift through life, hopefully not cutting off pedestrians as an entitled motorist à la the Berkeley study. Think about all the interactions you have with people throughout the course of a day, and how you handle those moments. We all go on errands, to the store, and have to deal with people working in customer service. And let’s be real – customer service and retail workers take so much crap from customers because the world has been indoctrinated to believe that, “the customer is always right” and a good business will always bow to the almighty customer. I heard a podcast recently where a business owner said, “employees come first, then customers,” explaining that if employees feel supported, they will give the best to their customers. Right on!  

That said, when I feel like I’m getting screwed over, or misunderstood by an incompetent customer service rep, I always politely ask to speak to a supervisor. I actually say, “I don’t want to ruin your day, so can I complain to a supervisor instead?” When I escalate my complaint, I almost always experience a positive result; a reversal of the bullshit first encounter.  

Now that’s great for me and my entitled needs, but it gets me thinking: When the supervisor takes the call and overrides the customer service agent’s initial interactions with the customer, these employees might easily feel undermined and eventually disenfranchised. Wouldn’t it be great to empower the reps to use their best judgement and make the assorted minor (and perhaps even major) concessions that only supervisors are allowed to make to keep customers happy? Then people like me wouldn’t have to use the supervisor hammer on them as often. If the average customer service rep felt more respected and empowered in the first place, he or she wouldn’t deliver the robotic replies absent critical thinking or sensitivity. If companies really valued their employees and customers outside the boundaries of their flowery mission statements, there wouldn’t be as many angry customers calling in to bitch slap customer service reps and demand time from supervisors. This reminds me of one of the great all-time messages from boss to team, dispensed by my former boss at Interwoven, Inc., Kevin “Dingo” Hayden. With his small marketing team assembled, he adjourned the meeting with: “Remember, I work for you guys, not the other way around. My job is to help make you all better. So tell me what I can do for you.”  

Counter-example: On a recent Lyft ride through Los Angeles traffic with Mia Moore, an incompetent driver nearly killed us. From the middle of a busy intersection, the driver commenced a very gradual left turn into high volume oncoming traffic moving at high speed. She was completely engrossed with her windshield-mounted phone navigation map that she was incompetent at following. I looked up from my phone call and started screaming for her to stop—absolutely unbelievable experience in front of our eyes. I contacted Lyft right away to report the incident, demanding that the driver be fired and asking them for some concession. I figured we could start with a refund of the fare and perhaps give me a 100 bucks credit on my account for the trouble. Their first reply was more or less a form email offering me a FIVE DOLLAR credit to my account for our inconvenience! Sorry, but I took this to mean that five dollars divided by two equals $2.50 — Lyft’s valuation of the lives of Mia Moore and I. Further enraged, I decided just for sport to keep bothering Lyft and see if I could achieve a more satisfactory resolution. My demand to at least refund the $33 ride was met with, “Sorry, we can’t refund your ride because your driver got you to your destination safely.”  

Lyft clearly gets an F in customer compassion, but there are many fantastic organizations that show respect and understanding every time you engage with them. Southwest Airlines for example — exceptional in every encounter, every time. Costco and Nordstrom are famously chill about returns, preferring to keep customers happy instead of squeeze every cent of profit from every interaction.   

If only all companies and all of society could all operate from this evolved and compassionate mindset 24/7! But all we can really do is commit to acting more mindfully, and being more conscious of our words and our actions, and how they cause a domino effect with everyone we meet. Otherwise, you might be behaving in a way that you don’t even think of as entitled, but it still rubs someone you encounter the wrong way, causing them to be in a mood as well (and then they run into someone, and infect them with your cranky pants ‘tude, and then that person runs into someone…and so on). But when it really comes down to the true cost of entitlement, it’s the entitled person who bears the brunt of it – the chronic disappointment, the mental health problems…it’s all entirely avoidable. All you gotta do is watch yourself, your actions, and get over yourself (when necessary), so people don’t get over you.  



Brad Kearns
Brad Kearns
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