Great Expectations

Every year, goals, dreams and aspirations stack themselves in my diary like ticking time bombs.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about where these expectations come from. What determines personal success and can a sense of worth, determination and goal setting as a young person actually be damaging?

To understand this more I spoke to Jamin Halberstadt.

Jamin is a Psychology Professor at the University of Otago where a recent study claims students increasingly believe they have a right to success. This sense of what students think they deserve is on the rise and it has a name: excessive entitlement.

I thought that was pretty interesting having just emerged from the walls of university myself.

I suffered humiliating technical difficulties upon my first attempt in calling. 

Luckily for me Professor Halberstadt is accustomed to the idiosyncrasies of the bumbling graduate and was very patient while I worked out how to use a telephone. 


Thank-you for speaking with me Mr. Halberstadt. I wanted to start by asking you to define ‘excessive entitlement’ for me.

Entitlement is a sense of what you believe you should have, what you think you deserve. Excessive entitlement then becomes a sort of mix-match between what you feel you’re entitled to, and what you actually are. These are fluid terms though, because people tend to disagree on what they do and do not deserve.

In terms of your study, deserving what exactly?

So some people might think, “Because I’m paying for this class, I’m entitled to at least pass the class.” And some people might agree that’s legitimate but I think the majority of educators will agree that’s not enough, just being present in class. We looked at how an over-blown sense of entitlement perhaps impacts an ability to objectively assess self-worth, in this case with grades.

We all have hopes, dreams and expectations. We set goals for ourselves. Can you prove ‘excessive entitlement’ is more than just an inflated sense of self-worth?

Yeah, so conceptually just thinking about yourself positively is not the same as exhibiting excessive entitlement. But they are related. People with higher self-esteem do tend to have a greater sense of entitlement and will have more confidence in arguing for what they think they deserve in life.

So your study found that link between people who think of themselves highly in general and people who have an exaggerated belief in what they deserve… What else did you determine?

Well this includes people too on the other end. There’s a relation between people with low self-esteem who as part of their thought process, maybe think they’re not worthy, that they don’t deserve the same rights as everybody else. But it’s separate from the theory of emotion, how you feel about yourself. It’s really a set of beliefs or attitudes about yourself. Or even a theory about the world. Maybe that the world owes you nothing.

Do you personally feel the world owes you nothing?

(Laughs) Personally… well. Research can’t tell you what the world owes you. I do believe in human rights, in that sense, I do believe that the world owes human beings some general level of living. I guess I have a narrow view of rights. I don’t think people have the right to something like high prosperity. But I do think they have rights to equal opportunities and not to be discriminated against. Some things like that. Food and shelter of course.

Basic human rights?

Yeah. But if I understand what you’re asking, I don’t think the world owes you a particular standard of living beyond that minimal standard.

How has the study been received among your colleagues and students where you teach?

I haven’t talked to students about it. But I’ve received a lot of positive feedback from teaching professionals, and it’s received keen media interest because there’s a moral angle to it. It’s looking at students who may have this sort of, personality flaw… and some are getting what they might deserve in terms of attainment. I don’t think it would have generated this much interest if the finding had gone the other way, to show ‘people with high entitlement beliefs are actually more successful in life.’

Your study focuses on university-aged students, do you think excessive entitlement primarily affects younger people?

That’s very hard to say. It’s just a guess, but I’d say it does. I think as you get older you encounter more of the real contingencies of life. You get the opportunity to put in your best effort and fail at something, then learn that sometimes just putting in your best effort may not be enough for success. In saying that, I think every generation looks at the next generation and thinks about how over-privileged they are in comparison. It was always much harder in the older days…

Perhaps then it’s not age…do you think the results of the study would vary depending on socio-economic groups?

Yes, or in terms of stereotypes of student groups. Our study was done on volunteer students taking a marketing and consumption paper, so you may have a stereotype that they are more or maybe less entitled than other students. That’s a good question and you’d predict it would, because entitlement beliefs are learnt culturally. It’s the culture you’re embedded in, the shared beliefs you hold with those around you.

Do you think young people need to practice more humility when it comes to entering the workforce straight out of school or university?

Ummm…. ahh.

It’s a difficult question because I’m sort of asking you to condemn young people…

Yeah, I can’t honestly say… I don’t like to make evaluative statements based on the research. But I think personally it’s always good to, I mean I always like people in the workforce, or not, who come off as humble. I guess it’s a good thing for everyone… I’m reluctant to say it’s just for students.

Well yeah and pride is everywhere, they say the ‘higher you go’ the more important humility becomes. So not just pertaining to students…With that in mind, what’s your advice to young people looking to succeed in their field?

I guess the take-home message is with obstacles–you’re always going to face things that get in the way of your natural trajectory to success, it’s how you interpret them. You can see them as a block, or as information on whether or not you’re putting in enough effort, based on our results anyway. You can see your ‘problems’ as an affront, or an opportunity.

An opportunity to reflect on how you can change the situation for the better?

Yes, it’s how you define them.

 What’s something you know now that you wished you knew at 21?

That you gain some perspective in life, I guess. On challenges too, and failures. Things that seemed really important, and acute and intense at 21… you look back and realise that no one really cares, now… what you did, how you did it. I guess it would be nice to have that perspective at 21. The other thing, I think I wish I appreciated more the value of taking time out after study, before starting a career, to travel and get a better understanding… to get wisdom and come back really knowing what I wanted, I think I would have benefitted from that at 21 to go in that direction. 

Prof. Jamin Halberstadt attended Swarthmore College and is a lecturer at the University of Otago in Dunedin, NZ. 

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