In recent years, researchers have identified a number of clever ways to inspire innovative thinking, ranging from having a messy desk to keeping the lights down low. Now, a new study points to yet another catalyst for creativity, albeit one many of us find insufferable: A sense of entitlement.
Emily Zitek of Cornell University and Lynne Vincent of Vanderbilt University report that, in a series of experiments, people in an entitled state of mind consistently displayed higher levels of creativity.
"Our results suggest that people who feel entitled value being different from others," they write in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. "The greater their need for uniqueness, the more they break convention, think divergently, and give creative responses."
In the first of their experiments, half of the 99 participants (all undergraduates) "were asked to write three reasons each for why they should demand the best in life, why they deserve more than others, and why they should get their way in life." The others gave three reasons why they do not deserve more than others, and why they should not expect to get their own way.
"Our results suggest that people who feel entitled value being different from others. The greater their need for uniqueness, the more they break convention, think divergently, and give creative responses."
All then completed two tasks commonly used to measure creativity. First, they were given 10 minutes to come up with different uses for a paper clip. Their answers were rated for fluency (the number of ideas they came up with), flexibility (how many distinct categories their answers fell into), and novelty (how far their ideas deviated from common usage of a paper clip, and how different they were from other people's answers).
Participants then were asked to draw an animal that is native "to a planet that is very different from Earth." Their portraits were assessed for "characteristics that diverged from standard Earth animals" such as extra appendages or extraordinary abilities.
The results: Those who had been primed to think of themselves as entitled performed better on all three measures on the first creativity test. They also drew more creative aliens.
Another experiment featured 98 MBA students, who completed a different test of creativity: They were presented with a series of three words (such as falling, actor, and dust) and asked to come up with a fourth that was related to all three (star). They also completed a verbal reasoning test, and filled out a "need for uniqueness scale."
Once again, participants with a feeling of entitlement performed better on the creativity test, giving correct answers to significantly more questions than those primed not to feel special.
Entitled participants also expressed a greater need for uniqueness. However, they did not do any better than the control group on the verbal reasoning test, suggesting the effect of the priming was limited to the creative realm.
Two additional experiments, conducted online, confirmed these results.
The study comes with an important caveat. The researchers report the entitlement-breeds-creativity dynamic was only found when people were prompted to temporarily think of themselves as entitled. People who felt entitled pretty much all the time were no more creative, on average, than anyone else.
Perhaps, the researchers muse, they simply "lack motivation or effort." Constant admiring of oneself takes work, after all.
Setting them aside, these findings could prove to be a useful tool for coaches or managers, or even serve as a self-help technique. Convincing yourself that you are special and deserving could certainly make you difficult to live with. But done judiciously, it could also help you access your untapped creativity.
After all, when starting a new play, Shakespeare was known to mutter under his breath: "Methinks I am pretty hot stuff."