In Defense of Entitlement

by Rachel Riederer
Originally Published: 

While entitled people are more likely to act selfishly, less likely to apologize, and more likely to complain if they don’t get their way, researchers Emily Zitek of Cornell and Lynne Vincent of Vanderbilt say there may be a less-articulated upside. In a recent study, Zitek and Lynne noted that “one common theme across these negative consequences is that they demonstrate that entitled individuals place importance on being different from others”—and in creative tasks, different is good.

The experiments found a relationship between creativity and state entitlement—not trait entitlement.

In one of the team’s experiments, half of the study participants were asked to think of reasons “why they should demand the best in life, why they deserve more than others, and why they should get their way in life.” The other half thought of reasons why they should not have these outcomes. Both groups then performed two tasks designed to measure creativity: finding as many uses as possible for a paperclip and drawing an alien from a planet very different from Earth. The subjects who had been made to feel entitled did better on both tasks, coming up with more, and more varied, uses for the paperclip.

“The greater their need for uniqueness, the more they break convention, think divergently and give creative responses,” the researchers said. The entitled group also drew wackier aliens.

It’s worth noting that there are different kinds of entitlement; as the authors note, the word can refer to “both a personality trait, in that people have different overall levels of entitlement, and a psychological state, in that a person’s sense of entitlement can vary at different times.” The experiments found a relationship between creativity and state entitlement, but not trait entitlement: “[S]mall, temporary boosts in entitlement can facilitate creativity,” the authors write, “while a chronically entitled disposition does not help and might even backfire on the exact same tasks.”

When I was in graduate school for creative writing, to call someone entitled was one of the fiercest insults any of us could lob. I’ve always thought that this insult got its power in that setting, because we knew it was at least a little bit true: the thing we were all doing—getting an expensive degree in a field that in no way promised a lucrative career—required a sense of entitlement, a pile of money, or a tolerance for financial risk bordering on the delusional. But maybe it was the other thing we were doing—declaring ourselves to be writers, deciding that people should read the things we thought and imagined—that was the real evidence of entitlement. In any case, I remember using the word against others and being terrified that someone could use it against me.

And yet the most valuable thing I gained during graduate school was a feeling that I could write things for readers, that it was not hubris or narcissism to think that my voice and thoughts were worthy of other people’s attention and time.

The worst implication of “entitlement” is a feeling that the world owes you something—but is believing that you deserve good things in life and that your work deserves recognition really a bad thing? In non-narcissistic doses, maybe it isn’t. Yet it can be a hard thing for many creative people to internalize, particularly when the notion of “the starving artist” is so pervasive (and real), and the results of creative work—whether images, films, music, or text—are distributed for free on the Internet and the people who make it are told they should be grateful for the exposure instead of compensated for their work.

This study reminded me of another intersection of creativity and entitlement that had lots of people talking recently: novelist Ayelet Waldman had a tantrum on Twitter, upset that her latest book was not included on the New York Times 100 Notable Books of 2014 list.

To believe deeply that your own work is “fucking great,” that the things you make are notable, might be a necessary part of the creative process.

“I am really not dealing well with having failed to make the @nytimes notable book list,” she tweeted, which is fair enough, but then followed it up by saying that her novel Love and Treasure is “a fucking great novel” and “there are MANY books on that notable list with reviews NOWHERE NEAR as good as mine.”

She immediately caught a lot of flack for the outburst—and rightly so, as it tore others down rather than simply voicing frustration—but the more I think about it, the clearer it seems that she was only giving voice to feelings that many writers and creators have. It wasn’t a graceful moment, but is the underlying feeling really so terrible? To believe deeply that your own work is “fucking great,” that the things you make are notable, might be a necessary part of the creative process.

Elizabeth Gilbert, who is working on a book about creativity, reconciled these notions in her blog more eloquently:

“Creative entitlement doesn’t mean behaving like a princess, or acting as though the world owes you anything whatsoever. No, creative entitlement simply means believing that you are allowed to be here, and believing that — merely by being here, merely by existing — you are allowed to have a voice and a vision of your own.”

When I described the process in the study to one writer friend—that the subjects had to think about reasons they deserve good outcomes before tackling their paperclip and alien tasks—he said “that just sounds like confidence.” It seems worth mentioning that the word “entitle” comes from the Latin for ownership, and confidence from trust. The lesson of this study is not that every writer should feel she should get a spot on a particular list, or that every artist should feel slighted if he doesn’t get a Guggenheim Fellowship, but that when we sit down to do creative work we should take a moment, like those study participants, and think thoughts that remind us to trust ourselves.

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