Social mobility in the United States has constricted in recent years. People who are born into higher social classes tend to stay there, while fewer are upwardly mobile and able to work the way up the ladder based on grit and intrinsic merit.

What this says about equality and equity of opportunity in the U.S. is troubling. And new research by Darden Professor Sean Martin and his colleagues has unearthed something that makes the situation even more disquieting.

Entitlement and What It Really Means

Martin and his colleagues’ latest study finds that Americans who were born to and have remained in high-class backgrounds not only enjoy the perks of privilege more than other groups, they feel a far greater sense of “entitlement” than those who’ve worked their way up the social class ladder, those who have moved down it, or those who have been born to and remained in lower social class positions.

And this is problematic, because entitlement is characterized by a lack of altruism or team spirit. Entitled people tend to be far more self-serving in their actions and decisions than others. They have less interest in the common good.

“Entitlement is a key component of narcissism,” says Martin. “It’s basically the belief that you deserve more — more resources, more consideration, more privileges and rewards — than other people. Narcissists and entitled individuals can make good first impressions. They are confident in their abilities and skills, which means that they tend to emerge into leadership roles. The problem is that they are also selfish; they make subpar team players and collaborators because their behaviors and decision-making are geared to serving their self-interest.”

The Research

Keen to explore potential ties between childhood and current social class, social class mobility and feelings of entitlement, Martin teamed up with Stéphane Côté, Jennifer Stellar and Rachel Forbes of the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management; Rob Willer from Stanford; and Emily Bianchi from Emory to investigate the psychology at play. Together they ran a number of surveys with over 1,000 participants — U.S. citizens recruited via Amazon’s crowdsourcing platform, Mechanical Turk.

Participants were first asked to disclose their current socioeconomic statuses via questions about their financial incomes, education levels and subjective feelings about their own social classes. Then they shared information about their upbringings, their parents’ incomes and educations and the level of affluence enjoyed by their families. Finally, they were surveyed for self-reported feelings of entitlement. Questions included how “special” they considered themselves to be and whether they felt they deserved more than other people or not.

The authors then processed the survey data using regression analysis to relate childhood social class, current social class and feelings of entitlement.

The Results

Martin and his colleagues describe the results as “consistent across studies, though the effects were more robust for education and self-perceived class position.”

People who’d been born into high-class families and remained in privileged circumstances reported approximately 33 percent higher levels of entitlement than others who’d worked their ways up from lower social classes, than those who’d been downwardly mobile, or those who’d been born in and remained in lower social classes.

In other words, individuals who have spent their entire lives in privileged positions reported having an enduring sense of greater worth than others.

“What is incredibly interesting about the study is how people who’ve grown up in, and remained in, high-status backgrounds were so upfront about their own senses of entitlement. You’d expect to see something of the tall poppy syndrome at play, with people wanting to maybe shade their answers down a bit. But we found nothing like that. These individuals are rating themselves and on average still say, ‘Yes, I’m a star, and yes, I deserve more.’ It’s fascinating how deeply entrenched these feelings of entitlement actually are.”

A Privilege Bias

Human beings born into privilege are conditioned by early life experiences, says Martin. They grow up with access to the kinds of resources and networks that engender greater success for them than for others — creating a cycle of unequal opportunity and constricted social mobility.

“We know from prior research that when prestigious organizations hire people into top jobs, background and social class can be an influential factor. Let’s say you have to decide between two equally skilled candidates; how to you distinguish one from the other? Top firms often go back and look at things like whether candidates went to Ivy League schools, participated in ‘elite’ activities, did unpaid internships in cool companies, and so on,” says Martin.

“The results of the present study suggest a potential problem for organizations that hire employees from elite backgrounds. The problem is that they may end up unintentionally selecting out the people who might not have had the same early, structural opportunities — people who didn’t have the same access to elite activities or networks, or who might not have been financially able to do an unpaid internship.” In hiring more people from high-social-class backgrounds, Martin suggests companies could potentially miss out on talent that has actually demonstrated the resistance and resilience to make it to the top; they then end up hiring people with more of the psychological traits they might not want in their organization. “This is just one paper so far, but it suggests a potential issue in that organizations could be losing something they might want and gaining something they don’t. There may be a ‘privilege bias’ that leads people to select against the very people who might make better team players. And at the same time bring in people who may be more prone to making entitled, self-serving decisions and actions that may not play into your organization’s values — and, ultimately, its well-being.”

Martin and his co-authors urge firms to keep these findings on their radar when hiring. He also flags as positive the finding that the downwardly mobile are less prone to feelings of entitlement — something that suggests that early psychological traits can be unlearned.

The Ability to Change

“What we are learning in our research is that certain traits can be imprinted early on in life,” Martin notes. “The class that you are born into can shape the way you understand the world and feel about your place in it. But equally, new life experiences can change this understanding and some of these psychological traits.”

Experiencing lower socioeconomic circumstances or interacting with others from different social classes can actually reduce feelings of entitlement, he says. And this observation also needs to further its way into the awareness of firms and individuals.

“We’re seeing a strong argument in favor of getting exposure to different social classes, different cultures and different value systems as means of attenuating or unlearning entitlement,” says Martin. “So interacting with diverse groups, or anything that helps people become more multicultural and more adept at breaking out of their own social or class position can help them become less self-oriented in their decision-making and behavior. And that’s encouraging news for executives looking to grow and develop in their careers, for organizations looking to get more from their people, and for anyone hoping for a more equitable playing field in business and society.”

Sean Martin co-authored “The Psychology of Entrenched Privilege: High Socioeconomic Status Individuals From Affluent Backgrounds Are Uniquely High in Entitlement,” in press at Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, with Stéphane Côté and Jennifer E. Stellar of the University of Toronto, Robb Willer of Stanford University, Rachel C. Forbes of the University of Toronto and Emily C. Bianchi of Emory University.

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About the Expert

Sean Martin

Donald and Lauren Morel Associate Professor of Business Administration

An expert in leadership, social class and ethics, Martin’s research addresses how organizational and societal contexts impart values and beliefs onto leaders and followers, and how those values influence their behaviors and experiences. His work has been featured in top academic journals, including Academy of Management Journal, Academy of Management Review, Journal of Business Ethics and Organizational Psychology Review, as well as mainstream media outlets including The New York Times, The Washington Post, Forbes, Fast Company, Inc., Harvard Business Review and Comedy Central. 

Prior to joining the Darden faculty, Martin taught at Boston College’s Carroll School of Management and Cornell University’s Johnson Graduate School of Management. 

B.A., University of California, Santa Barbara; MBA, California Polytechnic State University; Ph.D., Cornell University Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management