Entitlement, as they say, is a hell of a drug. A new study examines its effects, finding that people with a greater sense of entitlement are less likely to follow instructions—because they see rules as an unfair imposition. Even when disregarding the rules means receiving punishment, the more-entitled people would rather lose out than submit to a system they perceive as less than fair to them.
The study, which appears in Social Psychological and Personality Science, follows up on earlier work which showing that more entitled people are less concerned about what’s socially acceptable or serves a greater good. They believe themselves deserving of preferences and resources not given to others—that’s nearly the definition of entitlement—but researchers were less clear on why people felt that way.
The authors, Emily Zitek of Cornell University and Alexander Jordan of Harvard Medical School, created a series of scenarios. First, they established that yes, entitled people were less likely to follow instructions on a word search game.
Then they began tweaking conditions to suss out the deeper reasons that happened. Maybe entitled people see rule-following as costly to themselves, or view instructions as too controlling. Maybe the threat of punishment could influence them.
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Not so, the researchers found. “We thought that everyone would follow instructions when we told people that they would definitely get punished for not doing so, but entitled individuals still were less likely to follow instructions than less entitled individuals,” Zitek said in a statement. Nor did they follow the rules even when it cost them little, or when the instructions were offered in a less-controlling way.
In another scenario, though, researchers found that entitled people were more sensitive to situations that might seem unfair to them. The final set of experiments built on that finding, showing that ultimately it was a misaligned sense of fairness that led entitled people to ignore instructions. They believed the instructions were unfair to them, so they disregarded them—even if it meant a loss for them.
Needless to say, people who won’t follow instructions can be a real problem. At least now research has shown why they don’t. That points toward some possible solutions. “A challenge for managers, professors, and anyone else who needs to get people with a sense of entitlement to follow instructions,” Zitek said, “is to think about how to frame the instructions to make them seem fairer or more legitimate.”
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