"Entitlement is a broad construct, but basically it refers to a desire to get something for nothing," explained study lead author Joshua Grubbs, assistant professor of psychology at Bowling Green State University in Ohio.
According to Grubbs, entitlement is a personality trait where a person has an exaggerated belief that he or she is an exception to the rule -- much more deserving of life's blessings that others.
But the new review of more than 170 studies on the subject suggests that entitled folk are also especially vulnerable to disappointment.
And when disappointment strikes, it can mean anger, blaming others, social strife, collapsed relationships and depression, Grubbs' team said.
That's because entitlement is "really an attitude of 'deservingness', without any consideration for earning those things you want," said Grubbs, who conducted the review while a graduate student in psychology at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. "I often describe it as someone saying, 'I exist, therefore I deserve whatever I want.' "
He said this outlook doesn't necessarily hinge on wealth. "We observe it across cultures and economic status," he added.
But no matter its source, "entitlement has long been known to be associated with negative emotion and distress," Grubbs said.
Along with co-author Julie Exline, a professor of psychological sciences at Case Western Reserve, Grubbs set out to examine why entitlement can be such a problem.
The review of the data uncovered a common three-step pattern of pressures and behavior that often plague entitled individuals.
First, there's the burden of living with the constant threat of failed expectations, Grubbs said.
Next comes emotional instability when an expected path or goal fails to materialize.
Entitled people often muddle through these emotional minefields, but not by admitting that perhaps they aren't so special. Instead, Grubbs said, adversity tends to cause them to lean even more heavily on an inherent sense of superiority.
However, this just perpetuates a cycle of disappointment, unhappiness, frustration and social turmoil, he said.
Grubbs stressed that there's a big difference between entitlement and healthy ambition.
"Ambition, drive and high standards are not necessarily symptoms of entitlement at all," he said. "You can want to be successful and have high standards for yourself while still being humble and grateful. Many of the world's greatest, most-accomplished leaders have been truly humble people."
That notion is seconded by Jean Twenge, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University.
"I agree, it's important to distinguish entitlement from other characteristics," she said. "Entitlement is not the same as ambition. Someone who is ambitious but not entitled knows he will have to work for what he wants. Someone who is entitled expects it to be handed to him."
That said, Grubbs stressed, "there are always exceptions to the rule," and not all entitled people will end up miserable.
Also, he said, "disappointment is not always the result of entitlement. Some people with very low levels of entitlement might still end up disappointed, because life has given them a truly -- objectively -- raw deal."
So if any of this seems familiar, is there a way to get yourself out of the entitlement trap? Yes, said Grubbs, who advocates for introspection and what's known as "active" gratitude.
"What I mean by 'active' gratitude is making a point to be grateful to others throughout your day and your life's experiences," he said. "I also mean this in a deep way -- it's not just saying 'thank you' to the barista at Starbucks, but actually taking time to reflect about how much you are grateful for, how much others have helped you become what you are, and the ways you can express that gratitude."
For her part, Twenge said there's much that parents can do to raise kids without a sense of entitlement.
"The best thing parents can do for their kids is to emphasize the importance of hard work," she said. "The world doesn't owe you anything. But if you put in the effort, most but not all of the time it will pay off."
Grubbs and Exline published their findings in a recent issue of Psychological Bulletin.
There's more on entitlement and narcissism at the American Psychological Association.
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