When people start to feel entitled or that they believe they have the right to things that others don't (known as psychological entitlement) in an organisation things can get difficult. When people with a sense of psychological entitlement get to positions of power and authority, things can get pretty hard and perverse for everyone else.
“Social norms are a primary method of reducing uncertainty within group and team contexts..”
Social norms are the rules that guide and constrain behaviours within any culture or society and both stem from and control what is appropriate behaviour within that environment. Social norms are the arbiters of order, organisation and structure within any society. However, despite the fact that they regulate social interactions and maintain order within a society, norm violations are frequent.
A number of previous studies have found that in many societies regular and blatant norm violators tend to be controlled, often in subtle ways, and they are frequently prevented from being able to gain positions of influence.
These are normal parts of everyday life, but the questions are:
- Why do some people regularly and constantly violate social norms?
- How are norm violators controlled and their influence restricted?
- Why and who are the arbiters of social norm following?
In this podcast David and Sarah discuss new research looking at how norm violators frequently develop a sense of psychological entitlement as they get into positions of power and how and why they stop other similar people getting promoted...
David: 00:07 Okay. We're going to have a look at a paper looking at a thing called psychological entitlement, and how people who have a higher level of psychological entitlement, they end up stopping other people being getting promoted within organizations. It's an interesting paper.
Sarah: 00:26 Yes. Yeah, interesting from a variety of different angles. I must say, I hadn't come across the term psychological entitlement before reading it, so I was really kind of, "Oh, I'm curious what that's about," as well as having a sense of maybe what it was going to be about. But it was interesting dipping into what that construct was about, and then also looking at the way in which that plays out in social group settings.
David: 00:52 Yes. Yes. And this idea of... the paper really revolves around the idea of rules, rule-breaking, and social norms, particularly within societies, and cultures, and organizations. And that this idea that the social norms and the rules that guide and constrain behavior within any kind of society, or in any organization, and that the norms are arbiters of order within the organization, and actually they're part of the organization and structure of society anyway.
Sarah: 01:33 Yeah.
David: 01:33 And that there are a lot of people conform to most of them, they'll break some, and then there are other people who seem to break those norms in quite a big way, and as a result of breaking that, they end up getting a kind of status.
Sarah: 01:50 Yes. There's this idea of-
David: 01:51 Pop stars, and...
Sarah: 01:54 Yes, yes. And from that they may then have a sense of psychological entitlement within that particular context. And that people that do things differently, if you like, almost, that kind of challenge the way in which things are done here, and may actively make them stand out to be something that gives them, like you say, a kind of status within the group.
David: 02:15 An authority, so they'll dress differently, in ways that most normal people wouldn't.
Sarah: 02:21 Yes.
David: 02:21 And you see this with pop stars, and actors, and things like this.
Sarah: 02:24 Yes.
David: 02:24 And what the paper's saying is that for some of these people who do that on a regular basis, that because that gives them an enhanced status, they end up feeling entitled as a result of that enhanced status. And then what they do, once they start to feel entitled, and that's what this is interesting, then what they start doing is they start applying the rules to all the other people, they become like the police almost. Making sure everybody else sticks to the rules but them.
Sarah: 02:58 Yes. So they become enforcers of the rules, in spite of the fact-
David: 03:01 They're breaking them.
Sarah: 03:01 Initially, their status within the group arose because they were challengers of the rules. So it's a curious cycle, if you like, that's playing out.
David: 03:12 Yes, and there's a hypocritical element to this, where they start to constrain and control other people, and make them stick to the rules, and highlight people who don't stick to the rules. The other rule breakers. And what the paper's doing is looking at that. That issue of psychological entitlement. So what were the main things that you found interesting in this paper?
Sarah: 03:38 Well, so there were a few things. One, I think social norms are really interesting, and what are the social norms within different groups, and then what happens around rule breakers, if you like. And the way in which rule breakers are perceived within an organization, and some organizations where rule breaking is almost encouraged. And as it's suggested in here, that there might be certain individuals that as a result of this kind of challenging of the social norms, actually achieve a certain kind of status. As opposed to in cultures where actually that's suppressed more, and this idea of...
Sarah: 04:12 So I'm very interested in Michelle Gelfand's work. She talks about this idea of tight cultures versus loose cultures, and that being about how strict or permissive, if you like, would be analogous terms. But how tight are the rules enforced? So in a looser type of culture where actually there's more flexibility and variation within the way in which social norms are expressed. More permissiveness, versus tightness. And she suggests that some of this, what influences this, her research suggests, is around threat.
Sarah: 04:45 So the amount of threat that there is, perceived or objectively real, if you like. I.E., a virus outbreak, or an earthquake, or some kind of that sort of threat. How strong that is affects where people tend to go. To tighter tends to be the orientation people shift more towards under threat circumstances. So I find this whole thing about social norms and individuals within social norms, and how power plays out within all of that, I think is very interesting.
David: 05:19 Yeah, it's interesting particularly some of the stuff I've looked at around cultures, but around cults and things. So the cults themselves are often rule breaking, in as much as they don't comply to the social norms of the environment that they sit in, they sit outside of that. But within the cult itself there's usually quite strict rules and adherents, and if you don't adhere, even though they're rule breakers themselves, if you don't adhere to the cult norms, you're out or something horrible happens to you.
Sarah: 05:51 Yes.
David: 05:52 And then you see this, as you say, this tightening towards more and more conforming, and making people conform, so it becomes more authoritarian.
Sarah: 06:03 Yes.
David: 06:04 We see these drifts in society anyway, and we're kind of picking this up in elements of what's going on in the West.
Sarah: 06:11 Political... yeah.
David: 06:12 Political elements of moving more and more towards less permissive societies, where tighter norms, we're creating outsiders and insiders. And this paper seems to be suggesting that this idea of psychological entitlement seems to be behind this, is kind of an ego defense state almost.
Sarah: 06:39 Yes. That seems like a really good way of reflecting, I think, what they're describing, isn't it? It's almost like, I now need to defend the position that I am in, if we're talking about it in an individual perspective. Or, if you're talking about it as a group perspective, that we need to defend this, therefore we enforce the kind of norms and rules more tightly as a defensive strategy, which would reflect some of what Michelle Gelfand's work around, because now I perceive a threat to-
David: 07:05 My status, my authority.
Sarah: 07:06 My status, our group status, or organizational status, et cetera.
David: 07:11 Yes. And what some of the things that I've seen in some of the other writing is this idea of getting to a position and then pulling up the drawbridge.
Sarah: 07:20 Ah, yes.
David: 07:21 So in order to protect my castle, as it were, I've got here by breaking all these rules, but I'm not letting anybody else in, because if they come in, then they challenge my status, might challenge my authority.
Sarah: 07:34 Yes. It's almost an openness up until a certain point, and then it can shift into this tight, or closed, kind of approach.
David: 07:44 And now I'm going to be the arbiter of the social norms, I'm going to make sure that they're stuck to. And you think back in history, things around witches, and all of those kind of things to do with social norms, and oppressing a group of people in any kind of way, and tightening the rules in a society or an organization. And you see these waves go through of this, and what this study, which is really interesting, is around this idea that underneath it all seems to be this idea of psychological entitlements.
David: 08:28 So what are we actually talking, what do we mean when we're talking about psychological entitlement? And that's one of the things that it goes into. So there's a number of studies previously, 2005, 2016, places like that found that entitled individuals often break the rules in order to enhance their social position, and then show that they've got authority, power, and dominance. And that this form of psychological entitlement stems from an association between an inflated sense of self importance, which results in a continual round of status enhancing behaviors, frequently involving violating social norms.
David: 09:14 And further studies in 2018 and 2019 have shown that psychological entitlement tends to develop and increase people's motivation to dominate others, and engage in behavioral strategies that further enhance their psychological status, or their social status. And a more recent study in 2018 has found that psychological entitlement is closely connected to a series of self promoting values, such as concern with achievement, gaining power, dominance, and improving one's social position. And you kind of think about some leaders, and politicians, and how they're acting.
Sarah: 09:57 Yes. Yes.
David: 09:59 It's this.
Sarah: 09:59 It seems definitely like this, quite a lot of this, doesn't it? Playing out in all sorts of ways around us at the moment, and I'm sure... and in an organizational context, we can all think, I'm sure, of situations where we've seen that kind of pattern going. It's interesting as well, the other thing that strikes me about this is, often with clients I'm... when you're trying to look at... So I think if we pull back a little bit from thinking about social norms, thinking about, what are the mechanisms by which we enforce, or manage, or introduce social norms into an organization, it's often around policies and procedures. And we put in place frameworks that are about saying, these are the ways in which things are done here.
Sarah: 10:45 And then there's the unwritten, the stuff that maybe isn't as clearly or explicitly stated. But it's very interesting sometimes who are the individuals that, if they're performing effectively but outside of the authorized ways of working here, if they're successful performers, how the organization deals with that. And the degree to which actually that still is driving... and sometimes, in some organizations... almost little power bases, or subcultures within the organization seem to be exempt from the rules that everybody else seems to apply for.
Sarah: 11:23 Which, when it's... The thing that's interesting about it, I think, is that when that's done openly and with intent, and there's a rationale behind it, in the sense that actually over here, we operate in a looser way, let's say in R&D activity, because it's much more appropriate to the nature of the work that we're doing. And over here... So this idea of how we calibrate different social norms that are required, but in a more deliberate way, as opposed to them happening almost in a more emergent way that then is not dealt with, or recognized. And you end up then with this kind of pull and push back intention within the organization.
David: 12:02 Yes, I think underlying that is that the kind of psychological intent, so if it's around aggrandizement, making myself look better, or kind of ego, so ego building and things, that's a very different kind of rule breaking than somebody who doesn't have that kind of ego. That is breaking the rules for more pragmatic reasons, because they've found faster ways of working, or shortcuts in things.
David: 12:32 And what's interesting about this is, it's kind of showing that those people who are just finding shortcuts, and there's no ego behind it, they're not there to... they're not likely to start making other people stick to the rules, even though they're breaking the rules, they're quite laissez-faire themselves. They'll say, "Yeah, okay, if it's working that's fine." Which is very different to the people who have this underlying ego, and they get this feeling that they have to defend that, and then they start to create more rules, or they create a tighter kind of organization around that, to make sure that other people are... And it's that lack of almost discernment within the organization of working out-
Sarah: 13:20 What's going on, yeah.
David: 13:20 Why is this happening, is this person doing this because they're trying to make themselves look better, and for status reasons, are they actually doing it for pragmatic reasons, or are they just lazy, as well?
Sarah: 13:33 Yes.
David: 13:34 There's many times when I-
Sarah: 13:35 Which is not to be underestimated, because actually, it's, yeah I am. It's just... yeah.
David: 13:39 But that's not an ego driven thing.
Sarah: 13:41 No. No.
David: 13:42 So they're very different, and that's what this is highlighting, this psychological entitlement is this idea that it's ego driven stuff. And it creates all sorts of problems in organizations, because you've got... And we all know, we probably all work for managers or leaders who you think, "Hang on a minute. You're doing that, but if I do that, you come down on me like a ton of bricks."
Sarah: 14:09 Yes.
David: 14:09 And there's that lack of coherence, almost. THey're not role models.
Sarah: 14:16 No.
David: 14:16 And it's that, it's very disparate kind of behavior, it's like they're doing this over here, but over here they're making things harder for everybody else, which is part of the issue. And in fact, they go on to talk about psychologically entitled people, the kinds of things that they're more likely to do, which is engage in unethical practices, allocate more unearned money, like borrowed from business and charity, to buy and maintain high status icons, such as larger houses, cars for example. The use of strategies for their own position at the expense of others. Claiming higher salaries than colleagues, because they feel that they're entitled to it, without any kind of reference to what the colleagues are offering and doing as well.
David: 15:08 That they expect to be treated differently and better than anybody else, and that they expect other people will spend more time on them. So you get that real sense of almost psychological neediness, to be fed, almost. And a study in 2017 has found that there are a series of negative responses that people with psychological entitlement come out with, I suppose. Things like acts of aggression, they're quite willing to cheat to win, acts of revenge, calls for retribution against other rule breakers, calls for disproportionate levels of punishment for rule breakers. It's a bit like the witch thing, you know, burn them at the stake. A little bit over the top, you know. And rejecting and ensuring other norm violators are found, and punishing them harshly.
David: 16:04 And there are political leaders like that, both... well, in society political leaders, but within organizations.
Sarah: 16:12 Yes.
David: 16:13 And they have quite a detrimental effect within the organization.
Sarah: 16:20 Yes. Yes. [inaudible 00:16:20] I don't know the degree to which this overlaps with aspects of narcissism, and-
David: 16:26 Yes, I think...
Sarah: 16:28 I'm, yeah, I would imagine that some of the sub-components and things, that there would almost certainly be some kind of relationship or overlap. I don't know, maybe it wasn't something they looked at in this particular research.
David: 16:39 No, they didn't.
Sarah: 16:40 Yeah.
David: 16:41 I would think that there will be. And there must be... we'll have a look, actually. We'll do another podcast around narcissism, because it's quite an interesting subject. And it's interesting, not only just from a psychological point of view, but actually a relatively high percentage of leaders are being shown to be-
Sarah: 17:02 Exactly. Yeah.
David: 17:03 Narcissistic. So it has direct import within organizations.
Sarah: 17:09 There seems some similarity, in terms of the pattern and the process by which people find themselves in leadership positions, as a result of demonstrating some of those... you know, what's the pattern if you like. Which is meaning that within that social group... Yeah.
David: 17:24 This study, this particular study, this 2019 study, has had a series of findings around this whole idea of psychological entitlement. And the first one is that it predicts whether or not an individual is likely to become a stronger advocate of current social norms, whilst themselves still breaking them. So you get that hypocritical type behavior. You want to have a look at this second one?
Sarah: 18:01 Yeah, so the individual with a strong sense of entitlement is significantly more likely to restrict and punish other norm violators as we were talking about, and that those punishments will be significantly harsher than low entitlement individuals would prescribe. So the degree with which they're reacting and responding to those sorts of things.
David: 18:18 Yes. Yeah, and as I was saying before, this kind of hypocritical stance that high entitlement people take. And the study found that this tend to be aimed at maintaining the group or society status quo, as a defensive routine in order to maintain their own social status. And such individuals are significantly less likely to be interested, or act out of a sense of fairness. Rather, they're significantly more likely to be acting out of a sense of status preservation and self interest. In effect, people with a high sense of psychological entitlement break the social norms in order to maintain their authority and dominance, whilst at the same time pulling up the drawbridge and ensuring that other norm breakers can't challenge their position.
Sarah: 19:08 And this, I think as the research concluded, that in organizations, that that was found to have a significant negative impact on the sense of justice in the organization, I think that's a really interesting point. The perception of how people are treated within this organization, what are seen as being fair and just within the organization.
David: 19:30 This idea of social justice is being... we've seen a lot of studies coming through around the importance of social justice, or that the perception of social justice within organizations. And that organizations that have low levels of perceived social justice tend to have higher turnover, and higher issues too around bullying, and lower productivity levels.
David: 19:54 So they've actually tied them in, and organizations that have a higher perceived social justice tend to have things like better citizenship behaviors, better engagement, and a whole series of things. And so it's not just looking at productivity, but thinking about the social justice that's going on within the organization. Do people actually just feel that this is a fair organization? And it's like anybody, if you're with somebody and you think they're being fair, or they're being judgmental, you have a completely different reaction to that.
Sarah: 20:30 Yeah. Yeah, absolutely.
David: 20:33 Yeah, really interesting paper. So members can go into the membership area and if you just search for psychological entitlement, you'll be able to get the full research briefing, the references and everything else.
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