Sometimes a single word speaks volumes. Take “tattletale,” for example.

Dominic Petrillo, owner of Petrillo’s restaurant in Freeport, used the word Monday to describe whoever alerted state health authorities that he was allowing dine-in customers at his Italian eatery. It clearly violated Gov. Janet Mills’ executive order limiting restaurants in Cumberland, York and Androscoggin counties to takeout and outdoor dining to control the spread of COVID-19.

Specifically, in a Facebook post that’s since gone viral, Petrillo accused an unnamed “neighbor” of calling the state’s “tattletale hotline” four times in five days. Maine’s Health Inspection Program issued an Imminent Health Hazard Finding and temporarily suspended Petrillo’s license Monday – all “thanks to your calls,” Petrillo told his accusers.

Which brings is to another powerful word: “entitlement.”

The word lies at the heart of two related studies – one three years ago, the other in process – by Emily Zitek, an associate professor of organizational behavior at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations.

Back in 2017, Zitek led a team of researchers in investigating the effect that people’s feelings of entitlement have on their willingness to play by the rules – particularly when it comes to those rules they consider unfair.

In a nutshell, she found that the more entitled people felt, the less likely they were to follow instructions that rubbed them the wrong way.

Now, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Zitek has picked up where she left off – focusing specifically on the often-polarizing do’s and don’ts now being decreed by all levels of government.

How does she define an entitled person? Well, they define themselves.

Participants in the online study were all volunteers who were paid a minimal amount for their time. Based on their answers to questions about themselves, they were placed on a widely used “personality scale,” Zitek explained in a telephone interview.

“People self-report their sense of entitlement – if they feel like they’re entitled to better things than other people, if they feel like they deserve great things,” Zitek said. “They basically say whether they agree with those items or not – and the more they do (agree), the more entitled they are.”

Her yet-to-be-published findings, while perhaps not all that surprising, are nonetheless telling.

First, Zitek said, those who land high on the entitlement scale exhibit a sense of detachment from the public health crisis unfolding around them: They’re not practicing social distancing, they’re not washing their hands more frequently, and they’d still attend a party if they felt like it.

“People higher in entitlement are known for being kind of self-focused,” Zitek said. “And so it does seem that they don’t have as much of a concern for others. They’re not as worried they’re going to infect people by engaging in these behaviors.”

At the same time, Zitek said, people with a high sense of entitlement show a stronger tendency to shrug off the pandemic altogether.

“They’re more likely to say something like, ‘The government’s making too big of a deal out of it, the media is making too big of a deal out of it,’” she said.

And what about those who don’t exhibit a sense of entitlement?

“They’re more concerned about others,” Zitek replied. “They really don’t want to infect other people. They’re taking the threat seriously.”

The study subjects also were asked about their fear, or lack thereof, of contracting COVID-19 themselves.

“Entitled people did say they were more likely to not get sick,” Zitek said.

Which, at least within the confines of the study, did not appear to be true. Of the 700 or so people who participated, Zitek found a small but significant correlation between a high sense of entitlement and people who either thought they might have had COVID-19 or had actually tested positive for the novel coronavirus.

“It’s hard to know the causal order – it wasn’t a longitudinal study,” Zitek said, referring to a research technique that repeatedly observes the same individuals over an extended period. “But it is possible that (people who feel entitled) are increasing their chances of getting COVID by not following the instructions.”

Where each of us falls on the entitlement scale is, if nothing else, an opportunity for self-reflection. But it’s also a useful metric in assessing what’s happening nationally, here in Maine and, indeed, in our own communities.

The emerging narrative in recent weeks has been that all the polarization over the pandemic is simply an extension of our longstanding, red-blue political divide: Republicans, spurred on by Donald Trump, pooh-pooh the pandemic at every opportunity, while Democrats worry that the real hardship (see: 1918 flu pandemic) is still to come.

But might it be more subtle, and more complicated, than that?

What if our posture toward these unprecedented times is a window into where we put ourselves in the human pecking order? Do we accept the new rules and guidelines because we believe they’re best for all, or do we reject them outright because we see them as particularly unfair to us?

Back to Dominic Petrillo, the Freeport restaurateur.

In his Facebook post, he wrote that he’s following all CDC guidelines – table spacing, disinfecting and the like – both inside and outside his establishment. In other words, he accepts those precautions as valid protections against the spread of COVID-19.

Yet, in the same post, he readily admitted to violating “an UNJUST Executive Order” prohibiting inside dining not just for him, but for every restaurant in the three-county area.

Meaning, because he considers that rule unjust, Petrillo feels entitled to ignore it. At the same time, as he told Press Herald reporter Meredith Goad, he’s most offended not by having to plead his case in Augusta but that “someone would step out against me in the community” and report him to the authorities. Also known, from where he sits, as the “tattletales.”

Petrillo conceded in his interview with Goad that business remains slow since he resumed in-house dining June 4. Those who come in and take a seat, he said, are a mix of regulars, people in search of a “good time,” and those who come “in clear defiance, to commiserate over what is an unjust situation.”

They’re entitled to their opinion.

Still, their behavior is enough to make you sick.


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