Expectation is often used to refer to two totally distinct things: entitlement and anticipation. My basic opinion is that entitlement is a rather counterproductive mental stance to have, while anticipations are really helpful for improving your model of the world.
Here are some quick examples to whet your appetite…
1. Consider a parent who says to their teenager: “I expect you to be home by midnight.” The parent may or may not anticipate the teen being home on time (even after this remark). Instead, they’re staking out a right to be annoyed if they aren’t back on time.
Contrast this with someone telling the person they’re meeting for lunch “I expect I’ll be there by 12:10” as a way to let them know that they’re running a little late, so that the recipient of the message knows not to worry that maybe they’re not in the correct meeting spot, or that the other person has forgotten.
2. A slightly more involved example: I have a particular kind of chocolate bar that I buy every week at the grocery store. Or at least I used to, until a few weeks ago when they stopped stocking it. They still stock the Dark version, but not the Extra Dark version I’ve been buying for 3 years. So the last few weeks I’ve been disappointed when I go to look. (Eventually I’ll conclude that it’s gone forever, but for now I remain hopeful.)
There’s a temptation to feel indignant at the absence of this chocolate bar. I had an expectation that it would be there, and it wasn’t! How dare they not stock it? I’m a loyal customer, who shops there every week, and who even tells others about their points card program! I deserve to have my favorite chocolate bar in stock!
…says this voice. This is the voice of entitlement.
The entitlement also wants to not just politely ask a shelf stocker if they have any out back, but to do things like walk up to the customer service desk and demand that they give me a discount on the Dark ones because they’ve been out of the Extra Dark ones for three weeks now. To make a fuss.
Entitlement is the feeling that you have a right to something. That you deserve it. That it’s owed to you.
(Relevant aside: the word “ought” used to be a synonym for “owed”, i.e. the past tense of “to owe”.)
That’s not what the term “entitlement” used to mean though. It used to refer to not the feeling but simply the fact: that you were owed something. Everyone deserved different things, according to their titles: kings and queens an enormous amount, lords and landowners a lesser though still large amount, and so on down the line. In some cases, people at the bottom of the hierarchy may have in fact been considering deserving of scarcity and suffering.
Western culture shifted from exalting rule by one (monarchy) or few (oligarchy) or the rich (plutocracy) to being broadly more democratic, meritocratic, and then ultimately relatively egalitarian, in terms of ideals. What this means is that in modern times, it may be the case that being rich or white does in fact grant someone certain privileges, in the sense that they may in fact be less likely to get arrested, or more likely to get promoted…
…but broadly speaking, mainstream culture will no longer agree that they deserve these privileges. They are no longer entitled to them.
More broadly, nobody is really considered to be entitled to much of anything anymore—oh, except for a bunch of very basic, universal rights. The U.S. Bill of Rights lays out the rights the state grants Americans. The U.N. Declaration of Human Rights lays out the rights that U.N. countries grant everyone. In theory, anyway.
And since we no longer think that people deserve special privileges, anyone who acts like they do is called “entitled”. But now we’re talking about the feeling of entitlement, not actually having the right to some benefit.
Also, note that this isn’t just about class anymore: given the meritocratic context and a few other factors, people sometimes find themselves feeling like they deserve something because they worked hard for it. This isn’t a totally unreasonable way to feel, but the world doesn’t automagically reward people who work hard.
This principle is at play when older generations criticize millennials as being entitled, and then the millennials retort “well you said that if we just got a degree, then we’d have decent careers.” What the millennials are saying is that they had an expectation that they’d have prosperity, if they did a thing.
But are they actually feeling entitled to that thing? Are they relating to it in an entitled way? It’s hard to say, and probably depends on the individual. Let’s take an easier example.
In his article How To Break All The Rules And Get Everything You Want, Altucher describes a multipart story in which he breaks some rules to get what he wants.
We arrived at the “Boy Meets Girl” fashion show and the woman with the clipboard said, “You are not on the list.”
I had been telling my daughter Mollie all week we would go to this show.
Mollie was very excited.
“Don’t worry,” Nathan had told me earlier in the day, “you will be on the list.” I am extremely grateful he got us invited to the show.
Two more times in the article, James has that “WHAT!?” reaction.
This reaction seems to me to be practically the epitome of an entitlement response: outrage. Particularly when he’s like: WHAT!? You let us in even though we weren’t on the list, but we’re at the back!? Note that the feeling of entitlement is usually not so obvious, even internally.
But note also that it’s possible to act entitled, even if you don’t feel entitled. I posit that we might call this something like “entitled to ask” or “entitled to try”.
To illustrate this, let’s take a response to James’ article called When “Life Hacking” Is Really White Privilege, Jen Dziura writes:
I have often had encounters with men who take something that’s not theirs, and when they encounter no outright resistance — there’s no loud talking, no playground-style tussle — they assume everything is fine.
It is not fine.
Sometimes, you take the best desk for yourself in the new office. Sometimes, you take credit for someone else’s work or ideas. Sometimes, you’re on a team, and someone from the client company assumes that you — the tallest, whitest member — are in charge, and you do not correct them. Sometimes, it’s just that someone baked cookies to congratulate their team on a job well-done, and you’re not on that team but you wanted a cookie, and no one seemed to mind.
I have been the cookie guy. Probably with literal cookies, although probably a different situation—not that I would know, since I was just paying attention to the cookies.
And if someone had refused me the cookies, I wouldn’t have been like “WHAT!?”. I would have said something polite and moved on. But if someone had suggested I was rude for asking, I might have been a bit indignant: “I was just asking…”
But in order to be “just asking”, I also had to be assuming that the person would feel comfortable saying no if my request didn’t make sense. Assuming that giving me a “no” isn’t a costly action. Which is often not a safe assumption, for a myriad of reasons that are outside the scope of this post. But the effect is that even without having a subjective feeling of entitlement to anything in particular, I can be relating to a situation in an entitled way.
There’s a concept that’s been around for awhile, known as the Nice Guy phenomenon. The basic notion is of a person (canonically male, though not always) becoming frustrated when their attempts to transform a platonic friendship into a romantic and/or sexual relationship fall through, leading to rejection. Feminist circles have sometimes criticized these men as objectifying women, but as Dan Fincke points out, in many cases the men are trying to relate to them deeply.
Still, Dan writes:
They want to earn love with their moral virtues, with their genuine friendship, and with their woman-honoring priorities that put knowing women as people over trying to just bed them.
Uh oh. Trying to earn love is a recipe for the meritocratic flavour of entitlement. Dan again, a little further down:
So at this point we come to the actual entitlement issue. It’s not that they feel entitled to sex—it’s much deeper and less superficial than that and these men deserve the respect of having that acknowledged. What they really feel entitled to is love.
At any rate, there usually is a sense of entitlement here, and it makes for unpleasant interactions when the guy finally shares his feelings for his friend. He has his hopes all up and expects her to reciprocate. (Here we probably have both kinds of expectation going on—entitlement and anticipation.)
Miri at Brute Reason clarifies that the problem isn’t feeling sad when you’re rejected. That’s natural and can make lots of sense. Same with:
- Wishing the person would change their mind
- Thinking that you would’ve made a good partner for this person
- Thinking that you would’ve made a better partner for this person than whoever they’re interested in
- Feeling embarrassed that you were rejected
- Feeling like you don’t want to see them or talk to them anymore
Miri distinguishes these from the feeling “I deserve sex/romance from this person because I was their friend.” and goes on to name some actions which follow from this feeling of entitlement. These include:
- Pressuring the person to change their mind (which isn’t the same as saying “Well, let me know if you ever change your mind” and then stepping back)
- Guilt-tripping them for rejecting you (which isn’t the same as being honest about your feelings about the rejection)
- Becoming cruel to the person to get back at them (i.e. “Whatever, I never liked you anyway, you [gendered slur]”)
I think that what Miri has highlighted here is a really solid application of the two channels model: the idea that you can have multiple interpretations of something at the same time, that can be alike in valence (in this case, both negative/hurting) but different in structure and implication—and potentially leading to different actions.
The difference in action can be stark—”Whatever, I never liked you anyway” vs “I still think you’re cool, even if I feel pretty burned.”—or quite subtle… what, you might ask, is the difference between “guilt-tripping someone for rejecting you”, and “being honest about your feelings about the rejection”?
Without the two channels model, we might say that the former is when you’re entitled, and the latter is when you’re not. But the two channels model suggests that it’s more like, guilt-tripping is what happens when your entitlements own you, instead of you owning them.
So you feel entitled? Okay, accept that. Not in the sense of endorsing it, but in the sense of accepting reality as it is. The reality is that you feel entitled. One way to do this while staying outside of the frame is to say something like “so it seems that a bunch of what I’m feeling right now is entitlement”. Either to yourself, or if it makes sense, to share that with the person you’re talking with.
If the guy in this situation talks honestly about his feelings of rejection and loneliness, that could be experienced as guilt-tripping or as making the person take care of him:
I feel really rejected now. It’s so frustrating, like, I’m so unlovable. Forever alone, right here.
But maybe if he’s able to get outside of just being the feelings, and talk about the overarching structure of what’s going on:
“It seems I’m feeling both a sense of rejection, but also like I’ve been setting myself up to feel entitled to your love and affection… and I guess that doesn’t make sense. I’m feeling frustrated and lonely, and at the same time… wanting to not relate to you from there.”
If I try, I can imagine that that phrasing might sound over-the-top to some people, but it’s actually how me and many of my friends talk… and it allows us to navigate tense situations while remaining on the “same side”. We stay on the same side by putting the feelings in the center where they can be talked about, and being clear that the relating doesn’t need to be run by those feelings. I go into more detail about the value of this kind of language here.
I realize that it might not be possible to talk at this level in a given relationship. First of all, it requires the capacity to think thoughts like that when you’re in an emotional state (hint: practice when you’re calm!) Even more challengingly, it requires a certain kind of trust and shared assumptions in the relationship, which may not be available.
With those shared assumptions, much less verbose expressions can still have that same page feeling. Without them, even the most clear articulation can nonetheless be experienced as an attempt at manipulation.
Without a good segue, we now turn to the final section: expectations, entitlements, anticipations, and desire.
When I was maybe 15, a friend and had a principle we used for navigating relationships with our romantic interests. We would go into a situation with “no intentions and no expectations”. One framing of this is that it was to protect against disappointment, but I think it could also be understood as a defense against the whole entitlement debacle: if I had an “expectation” that me and my crush were going to kiss, but she didn’t want to, well… then what? I wouldn’t kiss her without her consent, but… was it okay to even expect that, if I didn’t know what she wanted?
And so we come back to the breakdown I introduced at the start: expectations as including both anticipations and entitlements. I seriously salute my 15-year-old self for managing to avoid the entitlement-related issues (well, at least in the situations when I remembered to use this principle).
The problem was, in turning off expectations, I had shut off not only entitlements but anticipations as well. And anticipations are important!
First of all, denotationally: from an epistemic perspective, you want to be able to predict what’s going to happen. Not just so that you could remember to bring condoms, but also to have a sense of being prepared psychologically for what sort of situation you might be navigating. Projecting what will happen in the future is important.
Then there’s the second, more connotational part of the term “anticipation”, which is the emotional quality: the pleasure of considering a longed-for event. The book Rekindling Desire contains quotations like:
Anticipation is the central ingredient in sexual desire.
[…] sex has a major cognitive component — the most important element for desire is positive anticipation.
What this means is that if you try to avoid having anticipations, you can end up with a reduced sense of desire. Hormones and curiosity being what they were, this wasn’t an issue for my teenage self on a physical level, but even now I notice a subtle effect that I think has the same roots…
I’ve sometimes found it hard to tap into my sense of what it is that I want in relationships or in physically intimate contexts. I know what feels good in the moment—pleasure gradients aren’t hard—but it’s been challenging to cultivate a sense of taste for the kinds of intimacy I want, and I think that a large part of that is the resistance I have for letting myself cultivate desire through anticipation.
An article published just a few days ago (but after I’d drafted this whole post) touches on how this may be a common phenomenon:
“I want more men to get to know their own bodies and desires. […]
“Feminist men often fall into the trap of thinking that the opposite of male sexual entitlement–the opposite of men using other people’s bodies to get themselves off without any concern for that person’s consent or desire–is to focus entirely on their partner’s pleasure and deny any preferences of their own. No. The opposite of male sexual entitlement is two (or more) people working together–playing together, rather–to create the experiences they want.”
So one conclusion I’m making as part of breaking down expectations into entitlements and anticipations is that I can start doing more anticipating of things, as long as I don’t let myself get trapped in having entitlements as well. As long as I don’t hinge my sense of self-worth on having my expectations fulfilled and on never experiencing rejection. As long as I can remember that having no preferences unsatisfied by way of having no preferences isn’t actually satisfying.
“The gap between vision and current reality is also a source of energy. If there were no gap, there would be no need for any action to move towards the vision. We call this gap creative tension.”
— Peter Senge, The Fifth Discipline
I’ve spent a lot of time talking about how this affects interpersonal dynamics, but I want to briefly note that this distinction matters a lot for thinking quality as well:
Having entitlement-based relationships to people or systems is kind of like writing the bottom line before you know what the argument will be. It’s assuming you know what makes sense or know what will work, even though you don’t have all of the information, and then precommitting to be reluctant to change your mind.
Having anticipations, on the contrary, is fundamental to making your beliefs pay rent: in order for your beliefs to be entangled with the real world, they necessarily must suggest which events to anticipate—and importantly, which events to not anticipate.
There’s a question to, of how expectations show up when trying to coordinate a team (or vague network of people with a shared goal). I think a sports analogy is actually valuable here: if we’re on a soccer team, it’s critical that I can expect that if I pass you the ball in a certain way, you’ll be able to kick it directly at the goal. I need to know this so that I know when to do it, because it’s an effective technique when performed well. But if that expectation is about entitlement rather than anticipation, then that will cause me to be less focused on whether my pass made sense in this situation and more focused on whether I can blame you for missing the shot.
My money’s on the team with anticipation, not the one with entitlement.
UPDATE Sept ’17: I’ve written a new post about a third kind of expectation.
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