We have all witnessed this scene: People stand in a line in front of a desk patiently waiting to buy a ticket, when Person X jumps the queue and goes straight to the front. Some people let it pass, others give an angry stare, but Person Y steps forward and says: ‘If you want to get tickets, you will have to join the queue!’ What kind of personality does Person Y have, and what triggered her reaction?

Norms, such as joining a queue, help keep anarchy at bay. Well-functioning groups depend not only on people’s willingness to follow the norms, but also on people’s readiness to reinforce the norms when someone violates them. To understand what makes people reinforce the rules by reacting negatively to norm violators, my colleagues and I at the University of Amsterdam examined people’s feelings of entitlement.

Entitlement refers to an inflated view of self-worth and the accompanying sense of deserving to be treated better than other people. This sense of deserving more than other people propels entitled individuals to violate social norms that stand in the way of obtaining desired outcomes. For example, entitled individuals are more likely to misbehave in the classroom, cheat on their romantic partners, commit research misconduct, and play politics at work. Importantly, entitled people often break rules to improve their social status, because status fuels their sense of self-worth.

Given the strong link between feeling entitled and breaking rules, one might expect that entitled individuals would react less negatively to other people who also break rules.  After all, entitled people are rule-breakers themselves.  On the other hand, because entitlement involves the desire to advance one’s own interests, one might expect that entitled individuals would react more negatively to other people’s norm violations. After all, those other people are moving ahead of them without deserving it!

We tested these competing expectations about the role of entitlement in a series of experiments where we increased people’s feelings of entitlement by having them complete a writing task. Specifically, we instructed one group of research participants to write down a few reasons why they should demand the best in life, deserve more than others, and should get their way in life (high entitlement).  We instructed another group of participants to write down reasons why they should not demand the best in life, do not deserve more than other people, and should not always get their way (low entitlement).

After writing reasons why they should or should not be entitled to get what they want in life, participants were asked to imagine a political debate in which a candidate running for president was asked to express his core values. Some participants read that the candidate stated that he strongly believes that rules are there to be broken and that he is ready to break all rules that prevent the nation from achieving its goals, showing that the candidate is willing to violate social norms. Other participants read that the candidate stated that rules should be followed at all times and he is ready to follow all the rules that allow the nation to achieve its goals, indicating that this candidate believes that norms should be followed.  

Next, participants rated their willingness to support the political candidate as leader and their willingness to punish him for his political views. Both reduced leader support and increased punishment are negative reactions that would indicate that participants rejected the candidate. The results of our research showed that high-entitlement individuals have the most negative reactions to norm violators: Highly entitled people are both less inclined to support candidates who advocated violating norms as leaders and more willing to punish them.

We also asked participants how threatened they felt about their own status. After reading about a norm-violating political candidate, high-entitlement participants felt most threatened about their status. Further analyses showed that high-entitlement participants reacted more negatively toward the violator because they experienced greater status threat.

To get back to jumping queues, Person Y—the woman who challenged Person X’s effort to get to the front of the line—may have felt more entitled than average and more threatened about her status, which explains why she revolted against Person X.

Now you may wonder: “Isn’t it hypocritical for entitled individuals to break rules themselves and at the same time tell other rule breakers off?” Probably so, but one has to also acknowledge that, despite their selfish motives to protect their own status and to get as much as they can, entitled people’s insistence that other people follow norms helps to sustain social order.

The finding that entitlement may have a positive effect on norm enforcement is intriguing because entitlement is often associated with negative, maladaptive, and antisocial effects. However, here is a caveat: Before one starts thinking about how one can instigate feelings of entitlement to curb rule-breaking in schools, the workplace, and politics, one has to consider that entitlement has two distinct aspects: an antisocial aspect that involves exploiting others for one’s own benefit and an aspect that reflects individuals’ evaluation of their self-worth. My research suggests that it is the latter variant of entitlement that makes people sensitive to their status and willing to enforce the norms.

So how can this research improve your ability to call out someone who is hurting you—or other people—by breaking a rule? The next time someone jumps the queue, think of what you are rightfully entitled to and you may find yourself more likely to speak up. And enforcing the social rules that society depends on will be to everyone’s benefit.

For Further Reading:

Stamkou, E., Van Kleef, G. A., & Homan, A. C. (2019). Feeling entitled to rules: Entitled individuals prevent norm violators from rising up the ranks. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 84, 103790. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jesp.2019.03.001

Stamkou, E., Van Kleef, G. A., Homan, A. C., Gelfand, M. J., Van de Vijver, F., van Egmond, M. C., et al. (2019). Cultural collectivism and tightness moderate responses to norm violators: Effects on power perception, moral emotions, and leader support. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 45, 947-964. https://doi.org/10.1177/0146167218802832

Stamkou, E., Van Kleef, G. A., & Homan, A. C. (2018). The art of influence: When and why deviant artists gain impact. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 115, 276-303. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/pspi0000131

Eftychia Stamkou is an assistant professor at the University of Amsterdam and a Fulbright scholar at University of California, Berkeley. She studies how the sociocultural context influences reactions to norm violations at work, in politics, and in the art world.