We’ve all had the experience of losing our temper when being treated unfairly by someone else. And while anger isn’t the most pleasant emotion, it can be a useful social tool to signal to another person that we’re not happy with how they’re acting towards us.
But what about when we suffer because of bad luck, rather someone else’s actions? In that case it would seem to make little sense to get mad. And yet, a new study in Personality and Individual Differences finds that a certain group of people are more likely to show anger in such situations: those who feel like they are particularly entitled in the first place.
Psychological entitlement is essentially a belief that you deserve more than others. People who score highly in entitlement tend to think that others should be accommodating of their own needs and schedules, for instance, and are more likely to see themselves as being mistreated. When their high expectations aren’t met, they can experience reduced wellbeing and feelings of anger.
In a series of studies, Emily Zitek from Cornell University and Alexander Jordan from Harvard Medical School looked at whether these emotional effects of entitlement extend to situations solely involving bad luck. First, the pair asked 162 participants to fill in the Psychological Entitlement Scale, which asks respondents to rate their agreement with statements like “I honestly feel I’m just more deserving than others”. Participants were also asked how good they would expect their luck to normally be when rolling dice.
Participants were then told that they would be randomly allocated by dice roll to either a fun task (rating comic strips) or a boring task (counting the letters in a paragraph). In reality, all participants were told they had had “bad luck” and been assigned to the boring task. They then rated how unjust they felt this was, and indicated how angry they were.
The team found that those higher in entitlement had a stronger feeling of injustice and greater levels of anger. More entitled participants also generally expected to experience better luck when rolling dice, suggesting this is another instance where entitled people have (unrealistically) high expectations.
In a second study, participants were asked to recall either a time when something bad had happened to them solely because of bad luck, or when someone had treated them unfairly. They then indicated how fair and just they felt the event was, and rated their feelings of anger.
People high in entitlement again showed greater anger than those low in entitlement when recalling an instance of bad luck. But when remembering an instance of unfair treatment, those high and low in entitlement showed similar levels of anger. That is, entitlement again seemed to be an important factor in determining anger after bad luck, but not when there was a specific individual to blame.
Finally, the researchers looked at how entitlement related to feelings of anger and pity when someone else experiences bad luck. Participants read a scenario in which their flight had been cancelled and the airline was randomly selecting a customer to hop onto another plane with a spare seat. In one scenario they were told that they had been unlucky and someone else had been picked; in another they were the lucky one.
When the participants read that they had had bad luck, higher entitlement was once again related to greater feelings of anger. Unsurprisingly, participants didn’t feel much anger when they were assigned the seat and the other person was unlucky. But they did experience pity towards that person — and interestingly, those with a greater sense of entitlement reported less pity.
Overall, then, the studies suggest that entitled people expect to have good luck, and get angry after experiencing bad luck — even though by definition there is no-one to direct that anger towards. (The authors do acknowledge it’s possible that people implicitly blame God or some higher power for their bad luck).
So what are the consequences of experiencing anger in those situations? The researchers suggest that feelings of anger and injustice could reinforce people’s sense of entitlement, though they add that there could be benefits too — if anger motivates someone to try and improve their performance in the future, for instance (though that may be difficult in cases where a bad result is purely down to luck).
Similarly, it remains to be seen how the results translate to the real world. In most cases an instance of “bad luck” doesn’t occur in isolation, but often in a social setting — so it would seem prudent to examine whether this kind of anger is taken out on others.