When we hear about narcissism, the psychological condition in which people become excessively self-centered, it’s almost a given that we expect narcissists to be high on entitlement. In their relationships, work, and general dealings with others, psychologists argue, the narcisstic expect special treatment. Moreover, the narcissistically entitled think that good things will come their way because they are deserving of favorable outcomes. In competitions, they expect to win, and in measures of their ability, we are told, they expect high scores.
However, what if some of those entitled individuals actually deserve the outcomes they expect? Is it possible that people who figure they’ll win have that belief because they’ve won so often in the past? Maybe the high test-scorer comes to expect measurable success because she’s always gotten terrific grades. Perhaps the celebrity musician figures he’ll win awards and accolades for his performances because he’s really good at what he does.
Unfortunately, the great and talented who start out reasonably normal on the entitlement dimension may fall prey to the narcissistic bubble. The great opera singer who worked her way to the top of her profession now expects that she’ll get the best table at exclusive restaurants or super service at her favorite high-end designer stores. However, there are those who manage, even in the case of accolades everywhere, to remain reasonably humble.
Believing also that there may be more to narcissistic entitlement than we might think, University of Texas at Dallas psychologist Robert Ackerman teamed up with Michigan State personality psychologist Brent Donnellen to investigate the subtleties of narcissistic entitlement. They believed that it was important to identify normal entitlement, in which people base their high self-esteem on their actual accomplishments. This is different from narcissistic entitlement, which occurs when people’s high self-appraisals are unrealistic and they don’t really deserve the victories and attention they crave.
People whose entitlement is in the normal range have high self-esteem based on actions that were truly laudatory. They expect to win not because they think that all others should bow down to their greatness, but because they typically do win. Normal entitlement, we might further argue, applies to specific areas of abilities. You may expect to win at chess because you usually do, but have no such illusions of grandeur about beating your favorite cousin in a friendly game of pool. The entitled narcissist doesn’t make these distinctions but instead thinks every enterprise should end in success.
Psychologists believe that at least some of the entitled narcissist’s expectations of victory and special treatment mask an underlying sense of inferiority. Go beneath the surface, and you’ll find that instead of having a solid, high sense of self-esteem, the so-called “vulnerable” narcissist feels inadequate. The show of grandiosity is just that, a show. The “grandiose” narcissists honestly think they are better than others and so their self-esteem has no such cracks in the armor.*
Even the entitled narcissist can expect special treatment and maintain high self-esteem without stepping on the rights of others. For example, an entitled shopper might believe that she shouldn’t have to stand in line because she’s such an important person. However, if she’s stuck behind someone else in a slow check-out lane, she would still wait her turn.
As you can see, then, narcissistic entitlement isn’t a unitary concept. To tap into its dimensions, Ackerman and Donnellen used one scale, the Psychological Entitlement Scale (PES), which relates to feelings of high self-esteem. People’s scores on the PES predict their tendency (believe it or not) to take candy from children, feel they deserved a salary, lack of empathy in close relationships, and expression of aggression. However, PES scores aren’t linked to neuroticism, the tendency toward emotional instability.
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The second measure Ackerman and Donnellen used was the Narcissistic Personality Inventory- Entitlement/Exploitativeness Scale (NPI-EE). Scores on the NPI-EE relate to a slew of pathological tendencies, including psychopathy, Machiavellianism, neuroticism, and antagonism. People who score high on this measure also have low self-esteem, life satisfaction, and overall psychological health. They also tend to report that they feel angry and aggressive (which is also true of people high on the PES scale). In general, however, the NPI-EE seems to tap into that vulnerable form of narcissistic entitlement in which people try to cover up their low sense of self-worth with overt protestations of their own greatness.
In a series of studies on undergraduates, Ackerman and Donnellen tested the relationships between the two entitlement scales along with other measures of personality and self-esteem as well as psychopathic tendencies including antisocial behavior, lack of empathy and the tendency to cheat. We should keep in mind when interpreting the findings that the participants weren’t necessarily representative of the adult population which, unfortunately, is a problem in much personality research. Also, participants reported on themselves and there were no actual checks other than what they said about themselves.
This research’s purpose was primarily to analyze how well the two measures distinguish the two types of entitlement. Building on these findings, it could then be possible to have more precise tools in future studies. Nevertheless, on its own, the study provides insight into how entitled people view themselves and the world and the fact that entitlement comes in different forms.
The statistical analyses that the researchers used allowed them to conclude that there is a measurable distinction between the grandiose and vulnerable forms of entitlement. It’s not enough to know that someone is entitled to understand why that person seems so self-centered. You also need to know whether that entitlement stems from an underlying fear of being inadequate or whether it’s simply an expression of pure grandiosity.
What about the distinction between normal entitlement and its more grandiose counterpart? The researchers found support for this distinction. For example, the item “I feel entitled to more of everything” signifies entitled grandiosity. In contrast, the item “Great things should come to me” is one that people with both types of entitlement tended to agree with.
The patterns of relationships between the two measures and the additional personality variables showed that these scales differed in important ways. People high on the NPI-EE (i.e. exploitative entitlement) also had low self-esteem, greater tendencies toward antisocial behavior, lower empathy, and greater tendencies to admit to cheating. Those high on the PES, which to remind you, measured grandiose entitlement, had higher self-esteem and a slightly increased tendency to admit to antisocial behaviors.
It’s not always easy to get people to admit to their own tendencies to be entitled, whether of the grandiose or exploited variety. However, the items can provide you with clues to use when you’re trying to understand yourself or others in the tendency toward grandiosity. The NPI-EE (exploitative) items included, in addition to the one I mentioned above, such statements as “I will never be satisfied until I get all that I deserve,” and “I insist upon getting the respect that is due me.” Someone with the normal type of entitlement might, in contrast, agree with the statement “I take my satisfactions as they come.” The items on the PES that, again, measured “grandiose” (high self-esteem) entitlement included “Great things should come to me,” and “I demand the best because I’m worth it.”
Entitlement isn’t a unitary concept, then. Further, in addition to these three varieties, there may also be a variant that involves rage. People with this type of entitlement are the most likely, as the term suggests, to explode when people don’t bow to their wishes.
The entitled in our midst who feel that they deserve special treatment when they’ve done nothing special can make life difficult for those around them. If you suspect that you might have these tendencies, the present research suggests the value of trying to understand whether you’re doing stems from a sense of vulnerability or instead is due to an inflated estimate of your abilities.
You don’t have to live forever with the traits that can make your life miserable. Once you understand where they come from, you may be able to overcome your strong need to be “special” and instead work on accepting yourself as you truly are.
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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2014
*I should note that this concept stems from the work of Theodore Millon, who died at age 85, after a career of paving the way toward our understanding of personality disorders.
Ackerman, R. A., & Donnellan, M. B. (2013). Evaluating self-report measures of narcissistic entitlement. Journal of Psychopathology and Behavioral Assessment, 35, 460-474. doi: 10.1007/s10862-013-9352-7