What the explosion in viral ‘Karen’ videos and public meltdowns tells us about entitlement
By Lindsay Dodgson
Publicly broadcasting entitled tantrums has become a massive trend in the last few years. During lockdown, it’s taken on a life of its own, with seemingly endless videos capturing people throwing angry fits about being asked to wear masks and even pointing guns at Black Lives Matter protesters in their neighborhood.
Whether people are behaving inappropriately in higher numbers, or they are just being called out for it more, is unclear. But according to therapist and YouTuber Kati Morton, it’s definitely true that everyone’s anxiety levels are higher than normal. This means our fight or flight response is going into hyperdrive.
“We can’t fight or run from the coronavirus like we could from a bear,” she told Insider. “So all of that energy is caught up inside of us causing us to feel irritable, on edge, hypervigilant, and stressed out.”
Anger is a secondary emotion, meaning it often boils up inside to cover up something else like anxiety, fear, or shame. Some psychologists therefore label it as a “positive” emotion, because it helps us steer clear of the uncomfortable ones and makes us feel strong and powerful instead.
However, if we spend our whole lives broadcasting the blame outwards with anger instead of focusing inwardly and taking accountability, we can fall into the trap of the “entitlement mindset.”
‘At extreme levels, entitlement is a toxic narcissistic trait’
Entitlement means believing you should receive recognition without earning it. It’s the belief you are superior to others because of your race, gender, sexuality, or nationality, and you have difficulty accepting others as equals if they are different.
In 2016, a group of researchers from Case Western Reserve found that having an exaggerated sense of superiority and deservingness led to a “perpetual loop of distress.”
“At extreme levels, entitlement is a toxic narcissistic trait, repeatedly exposing people to the risk of feeling frustrated, unhappy and disappointed with life,” said psychologist Joshua Grubbs, the primary author of the paper.
“Oftentimes, life, health, aging, and the social world don’t treat us as well as we’d like. Confronting these limitations is especially threatening to an entitled person because it violates their worldview of self-superiority.”
By reacting to these perceived injustices with anger reassures themselves of their own specialness, and the cycle continues, he said.
Research from 2002 also found that entitlement, when studied as a trait of narcissism, was associated with higher levels of anger in a sample of 130 male college students. So while it doesn’t excuse the behavior, the psychology of entitlement may help us understand the rage that seems so prevalent in the world right now.
The ‘Karen’ mindset
Many instances of entitlement have been catalogued by Instagram pages like @karensgoingwilds over the last few months. They have been collecting footage from people all over the US who identify “Karens” — a term that’s been adopted for a white woman, or sometimes a man, who is caught committing acts of racism in public.
Some examples include videos of white women calling the police on innocent people, blocking people from leaving parking lots, and screaming beyond sense. The exponential movement for catching this over-the-top behavior on camera seemed to begin with Amy Cooper — the “Central Park Karen” — who threatened a Black man by calling the police on him when he asked her to put a leash on her dog.
Psychologist Perpetua Neo told Insider one reason for the rage we see in people acting incongruously in public could be related to the uncertainty they feel right now. Not only is there an ongoing coronavirus pandemic, but there have also been hundreds of stories of police brutality dominating the news, and there is more necessity than ever for people to face up to their own privileges and prejudices.
“Nobody likes to admit they are fearful or anxious, so it becomes another kind of poison, and metamorphizes into something else,” said Neo. “The ‘Karens’ are clearly quite angry about something and they need to scapegoat somebody who is different to them.”
Someone who is entitled has their own ideas of where they fit in society and what their rights are, and they are not used to those being challenged.
Neo said there’s a sense of “How dare you?” that encompasses an entitled person’s dislike of being told what to do. This can be seen when a simple request of being asked to wear a mask can turn into an intense altercation as defensiveness becomes extreme and the entitled person lashes out.
It can be particularly rage-inducing if a white person is criticized by someone younger than them or a person of color if they’re used to ignoring the benefit they’ve received from injustices their entire lives.
“They think. ‘You’re worse than me, you’re subordinate to me, you’re stupid,'” said Neo. “And I know the system is on my side, the white person, so let me call the cops on you.”
Individualism vs Communitarianism in society
Morton said it could also come down to the fact the US is quite an individualistic society. An individualist mindset means your actions are centered around your own rights and needs, with less attention being placed on your community. In comparison, communitarianism is more about being aware and connected to society, and being mindful about how your choices affect everyone.
People in a communitarian society, like in Japan and Taiwan, have worn masks for decades, in part because they have a heightened awareness for one another’s health. Someone who is more individualistic may be less likely to wear a mask even now in the midst of a pandemic for selfish reasons: It’s uncomfortable, it makes them look scared and weak, or they don’t believe they’ll get sick so they don’t see the point.
“We stocked up on toilet paper so that our family wouldn’t run out, we didn’t think about how that could affect someone else,” said Morton of the individualistic mindset. “Wearing a mask protects others from your germs, which requires us to think of what’s good for our country as a whole instead of what’s good for just us.”
As entitlement videos continue to spread online, there’s been an inevitable backlash to the trend of people being called out when they make a scene in public. But Neo said that’s an attempt to misdirect from the actual problem.
“Basically that’s gaslighting you, making you responsible for how uncomfortable they feel as a result of their own actions,” she said. “Fundamentally, they think, ‘I’m allowed to be racist and scold people and basically be abusive.'”