Defeat is never fun, but losing a game of poker is less painful when it’s due to the luck of the draw rather than an opponent who’s cheating. Unfairness fires people up, whereas bad luck just disappoints.
But interestingly, this isn’t true for everyone. In a series of studies, we found that people who have higher levels of psychological entitlement—who believe they deserve good things—actually felt victimized and angered when they experienced, remembered or imagined bad luck befalling them.
For most of us, anger arises when someone else causes us to suffer. It’s an uncomfortable state, often associated with lost sleep as well as impaired social and cognitive functioning. And when anger is accompanied by aggression, there can be interpersonal, medical and even legal consequences, not to mention shame and regret. However, when expressed in the right way, anger can help someone get what they want. Anger signals to other people that they are treating you unfairly and can prompt others to reconsider their actions. For example, when your colleague has been slacking off on a shared project, your ire might lead them to pitch in more.
While anger can help when directed at the offender, it’s hard to see any upside to seething in response to bad luck. But what people expect, and think they are owed by the world, varies widely. We hypothesized that for more psychologically entitled individuals, mere bad luck—not getting what they want—may feel like an injustice and cause righteous anger, as if the cosmos were set against them.
To test this idea, we examined whether highly entitled people were more likely to get angry when they experienced minor bad luck. As part of our study, about 200 participants were asked to agree or disagree with statements such as “Things should go my way,” as a commonly used measure of their psychological entitlement. We also asked them to report their expectations regarding their personal luck. The participants then were told that they had been “randomly” assigned to complete a dull task (counting letters in a paragraph) rather than a fun one (rating a comic strip). Before beginning the boring task, participants indicated the degree to which it felt unfair that they had to complete this task, rather than rate the comic strip, and the amount of anger they felt in response. As predicted, we found that more entitled people expected better luck, and felt cheated, and in some cases angry, that they had been given the dull task.
We then conducted a larger experiment—with about twice as many people—in which participants were randomly assigned to reflect on a time they had bad luck, with no one to blame, or a time when they were treated unfairly by someone else. (This time, the random assignment was genuine!) Participants again completed a measure of psychological entitlement prior to the experimental task. After recording their memories, participants reported their emotions using a standardized scale. In this second study, consistent with our predictions, there was a significantly stronger relationship between entitlement and anger in the bad luck condition compared to the unfair treatment condition. Although all the participants felt angry after remembering unfair treatment (e.g., not getting credit for their work, being punished for something someone else did, experiencing prejudice), the more highly entitled participants were more likely to report anger after remembering an experience of (impersonal) bad luck (e.g., accidents, illnesses, equipment failures).
In a third study, we investigated whether more entitled people also felt angry in response to other people’s bouts of misfortune or, as we hypothesized, only when they were personally victimized by bad luck. One hundred participants imagined that they or someone else had a flight cancelled due to weather, preventing them from flying until the next day. As expected, the greater the entitlement, the greater the self-reported anger, but only when the participant himself was impacted. When it was another person’s hardship, highly entitled people were no angrier than those who were less entitled.
Across our studies, we found that people with an inflated sense of entitlement were more likely to get angry about bad luck, as if it were a personal injustice and the cards were purposely stacked against them. We’ve all encountered people like this, who exhibit very high levels of psychological entitlement. And when they’re your co-workers, family members and even elected leaders, entanglement is unavoidable. In these situations, it’s best to remember that that the entitled person’s anger doesn’t necessarily mean that you or anyone else has wronged them. Although we can sympathize, their sense of victimization and outrage may simply be due to getting dealt a bad hand rather than the great one they feel they deserve.