A strong sense of entitlement doesn’t come with many redeeming qualities. Entitled people are bratty and hostile and selfish, and they’re unapologetic about being bratty and hostile and selfish because they think they have the right. Workplace entitlement is especially problematic (if overblown among Millennials): it causes conflict with colleagues, requires special treatment by managers, and can potentially lead to unethical behavior. There’s little incentive to frame the quality in a generous way, either, since the last thing entitled types need is encouragement.
That said, a pair of management scholars believe they’ve found an unexpectedly positive consequence of entitlement. In a new paper in Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, Emily Zitek of Cornell University and Lynne Vincent of Vanderbilt University report that a temporary feeling of entitlement seems to lift a person’s creative powers. The offensive air of superiority that entitled people possess might increase a drive for uniqueness that, properly harnessed and directed, results in heightened originality.
“When people feel more entitled, they will think and act differently than others,” write Zitek and Vincent, “and the more they do so, the more willing and able they will be to generate creative solutions.”
Zitek and Vincent reached their conclusion through a series of studies designed to see how test participants would perform on creative tasks after being put in an entitled frame of mind. In one experiment, participants who spent five minutes writing why they deserve more in life than others outperformed a control group on a common creative task that involves coming up with novel uses for a paperclip. They also drew pictures of aliens that were judged to be more creative.
In a second experiment, test participants were given another common creativity measure known as the remote associates test. The RAT shows people three words (such as “falling,” “actor,” and “dust”) and asks them to come up with a fourth related word (in this case, “star”). Once again, participants made to feel entitled did better than their counterparts, answering more of the RAT problems correctly on average.
A third study using slightly different methods found more of the same results. This time, rather than writing an essay about superiority, test participants unscrambled sentences that either had entitled messages (“You deserve a great vacation”) or a neutral one (“She wore the gloves for the whole day”). Despite the subtle and indirect approach, participants in the entitled group still performed better on RAT problems, and also generated more novel potential uses for vacant retail space.
The sum of the evidence convinced Zitek and Vincent that entitlement itself–and not some other factor–was the source of this creative spark. Using standard emotional questionnaires they ruled out the possibility that either power or positive affect were responsible for the originality gap; on these measures, all test participants scored the same. Instead, the researchers traced creativity among entitled participants to a “need for uniqueness” inherent in the mindset.
“Taken together, our results suggest that people who feel more entitled value being different from others, and the greater their need for uniqueness, the more they break convention, think divergently, and give creative responses,” they conclude.
Just as every entitled person deserves to be cut down to size, some limitations of the research must be mentioned. For starters, some of the creativity tasks used in the study–namely, the paperclip task–have trouble distinguishing between someone who’s truly being creative and someone who’s merely being different. Fashioning a paperclip into an emergency keychain is MacGyver-caliber clever; using one for an emergency earring is a tetanus shot.
A far bigger problem with the results, one acknowledged by the researchers, is that the entitlement mentality produced in test participants was a temporary one. In other words, they tested entitlement as a fleeting state of mind as opposed to an entrenched personality trait. Indeed, Zitek and Vincent found no relationship between trait entitlement (as identified by a standard psychological measure) and creativity in another experiment. The researchers suspect that while a burst of entitlement might yield a burst of creativity, a lifetime of it might drain a person’s motivation; after all, if you deem success your birth rite, working for it seems besides the point.
Still, the potential creative benefit of temporary entitlement alone is intriguing enough to explore further. It might help explain, at least from an evolutionary perspective, why such an ostensibly negative trait has endured through the ages. It raises the prospect of other potential positives embedded in entitled minds: an inflated sense of worth might help people during public speaking or idea pitching, for instance; a superior outlook might encourage whistle-blowing. It could even prompt some teachers or managers, rather counter-intuitively, to elevate feelings of entitlement before certain situations requiring unconventional thinking.
Then again, best not to get too bullish about the upsides of entitlement. The entitled can do plenty of that for themselves.