One of Gordon Brown's longstanding ideas has been that schools must unlock hidden talent. We "cannot afford to waste the potential of any child, discard the ability of any young person, leave untapped the talents of any adult."
This seems trivially reasonable, doesn't it?
No. This new paper points out that a school system that provides lots of opportunities can end up making us unhappier:
The idea that expanding work and consumption opportunities always increases people's wellbeing is well established in economics but finds no support in psychology...
Expanding work and consumption opportunities are a good thing for decision utility but may not be so for experienced utility.
The problem is that of an education-induced prediction bias. A school that gives us lots of opportunities raises our aspirations by more than it raises our likely achievements. The upshot is that its students end up unhappy, feeling they've missed their chances.
Take two similar people in similar, decent jobs. One went to an expensive school that gave lots of opportunities for its students to become sportsmen, musicians, politicians or high-earners. The other went to a bog-standard comp. The latter is likely to be happier. Whereas the posh schoolboy will be filled with self-reproach at having missed so many opportunities, the comp boy will be happy at having made something of his life.
There is, therefore, a trade-off between maximizing opportunities and maximizing utility. And as Brown exaggerates our need for talent and skills, perhaps there is a case for settling for having bad schools - especially as there's always something to be said for reconciling oneself to the inevitable.