Debunking the myth of lower class entitlement

Labelling your opponent as entitled may well be the defining political strategy of the past few years. It’s an allegation which is levelled at all corners of society, but seems to be increasingly directed downwards, with welfare recipients, minorities, and above all else, the dreaded Millennial generation, receiving the bulk of accusations.

But the trouble with entitlement debates is they’re highly subjective. For example, accusations levelled between Millennials and Baby Boomers invariably boil down to attempting to equilibrate behaviour across two vastly different eras. And debate surrounding social security invariably involves class warfare perpetrated by individuals who have only a stereotyped perception of how the other side lives.

Perhaps the best example of how ludicrously distorted claims of entitlement can become was when Australian property mogul Tim Gurner opined that the reason Millennials weren’t able to afford houses in a market where the median price was $1 million, was because they were addicted to $22 Avocado on Toast.

Avo calc
In typical millennial fashion we even made an ironic avocado calculator. (Datasaurus-Rex)

While it was quickly pointed out how little effect a weekly $22 ‘splurge’ would have in a historically high housing market, his outburst perfectly captured just how far off we can be when we try and perceive someone else’s situation.

Objectifying the Subjective

So, given the subjectivity surrounding this issue, it would be helpful to attempt to establish what we can objectively observe. At its core, entitlement is an inflated view of what we are owed compared to what we’ve earnt, reflecting an imbalance between our self-interest and our sense of social fairness.

While both self-interest and fairness are highly subjective, researchers can more objectively quantify them using various economic games. These games can put a dollar value on the different elements of entitlement and allow us to objectively show any discrepancies between what we see as fair for ourselves, compared to what we consider fair for another.

One economic game use for this is the Ultimatum Game. This involves two players, with player 1 being given an amount of money of which they are told to offer a portion to player 2. If player 2 accepts the offer both players receive the agreed amount. However, if player 2 rejects the offer, both players receive zero.

Perfectly explained by the excellent SMBC. (SMBC)

This seemingly basic game can tell us a lot about the self-interest/fairness balance, with any offers below a 50/50 split indicating player 1’s self-interest, and any rejected offers by player 2 demonstrating their sacrificing of reward to punish a perceived lack of fairness. The game can also serve as a measurement for entitlement, with the selfishness of offers from player 1 or the number of rejections from player 2 both giving us comparable values for what individuals feel they are owed.

In its simplest form, the game typically sees player 1 offering varying amounts, with an average of 40%, and player 2 accepting around 84% of the time, with higher rates of rejection for lower offers. These rates change in accordance with various factors such as the amount to be shared and the perceived fairness of the other participant. Furthermore, when the reward to be shared must first be earned by the two participants, the offers which are considered to be fair vary from this 40% baseline proportional to each players contribution to the earned amount.

With status comes entitlement

What these results show is that our economic decisions are formed by an internal compromise between self-interest and fairness. Due to our inherent self-interest it could be said that our default position is one of entitlement, as we will always pursue outcomes that favour ourselves.

But what is especially interesting is looking at what factors cause this default setting to become more skewed towards self-interest, and given the accusations of entitlement levelled at the lower classes, looking at how these values vary with different levels of social class or wealth.

In one experiment, researchers ranked participants according to their results in a maths quiz, then had them accept or reject Ultimatum Game offers. Despite having no bearing on the amounts offered, those with higher ranking felt entitled to higher offers.

Furthermore, a study that looked at how personal wealth affected ultimatum game choices showed that not only did greater personal wealth correlate with entitlement to a greater share of the split,  but even newfound wealth (via winning a $50 lottery before the game) meant a similar rejection of low offers.

These results showing a correlation between various measures of status and higher entitlement are supported by studies outside of the ultimatum game which suggest that higher personal status (whether measured through wealth, class, or power) being linked with an increased likelihood to break the law for personal gain, dishonesty, selfishness, and even the very Mr. Burns-esque action of literally stealing candy from children.

But don’t worry. Those entitled elitists will get their due…one day. JP Chapman

Wealth is relative

While it is a stretch to make conclusive statements based on these studies, it does seem that status can distort our perception of entitlement to a larger share of the ultimatum game prize. To understand why this might be the case consider a study that showed we gain satisfaction not from absolute income, but rather the relative rank our income gives us among our social group.

This means that a pay rise will mean more to us if it advances us within our social sphere (i.e. our friends, family, workplace, or community), than if it simply increases in absolute dollars. Plus, we place far more weight on our rank compared to those above us than those below, meaning we’re much less likely to appreciate when we’re well off.

This preference for relative rank over absolute earnings has been observed in two person games, where participants were more likely to reject offers that left them receiving far less than the other person, compared to more equal offers – even when they would personally receive more from the unequal distribution. It is also seen in a version of the ultimatum game where one participants is gifted $50 before they both rate the fairness of various splits. The participant with the $50 will be more generous to the other, however only in a manner that ensures they maintain their advantage over the other player.

Our perceptions of what is normal also hugely influence how we perceive a reward. Returning to the Ultimatum Game, when participants were told a value that represented the ‘typical offer’ they could expect, their acceptance rate depended on whether the amount they were offered was higher or lower than this value.

And to top it all off, not only does the increased wealth of an individual and their peer group distort their perception of wealth, but as a recent study has shown, our perception of how much work we’ve done is distorted by how much we’re paid, with higher rewards being interpreted as higher effort.

Taken together with the results from the ultimatum game, we can begin to see how a distorted sense of entitlement can be formed by higher status. As we have seen with financial status, the more we earn the less we appreciate any gains, and the more our perception of how much work we’re actually doing is distorted. And it’s possible that this same mechanism may also apply to other forms of status, with white privilege or male entitlement very possibly falling victim to the same distorted perception that prevent us from unbiasedly assessing our relative fortune.

Put the red flags away…for now

Kayle Kaupanger

While it’s tempting to use the above studies to reverse the charge of entitlement and apply it to the rich, it’s important to remember that demonization of entire social classes is never justifiable, regardless of who is portrayed, and the above results are far from conclusive.

None of these studies suggest any inherent entitlement among the rich and powerful, and any attempt to paint this picture is confounded by research that shows that the rich have higher volunteering rates, donate more to charity, and exhibit more pro-social tendencies.

But with many claims of entitlement being aimed towards the lower rungs of society, and given the damage a false perception of entitlement can do to the truly needy and vulnerable, these studies should at least show us that these assertions are at best subject to bias, if not completely unfounded.

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