The Matthew effect, Matthew principle, or Matthew effect of accumulated advantage can be observed in many aspects of life and fields of activity. It is sometimes summarized by the adage "the rich get richer and the poor get poorer". The concept is applicable to matters of fame or status, but may also be applied literally to cumulative advantage of economic capital. In the beginning, Matthew effects were primarily focused on the inequality in the way scientists were recognized for their work. However, Norman Storer, of Columbia University, led a new wave of research. He believed he discovered that the inequality that existed in the social sciences also existed in other institutions.
The term was coined by sociologist Robert K. Merton in 1968 and takes its name from the Parable of the talents or minas in the biblical Gospel of Matthew. Merton credited his collaborator and wife, sociologist Harriet Zuckerman, as co-author of the concept of the Matthew effect.
The concept concludes both synoptic versions of the parable of the talents:
For to every one who has will more be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away.
I tell you, that to every one who has will more be given; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away.
The concept concludes two of the three synoptic versions of the parable of the lamp under a bushel (absent in the version of Matthew):
For to him who has will more be given; and from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away
Take heed then how you hear; for to him who has will more be given, and from him who has not, even what he thinks that he has will be taken away.
The concept is presented again in Matthew outside of a parable during Christ's explanation to his disciples of the purpose of parables:
And he answered them, "To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. For to him who has will more be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away."
Sociology of science
In the sociology of science, "Matthew effect" was a term coined by Robert K. Merton to describe how, among other things, eminent scientists will often get more credit than a comparatively unknown researcher, even if their work is similar; it also means that credit will usually be given to researchers who are already famous. For example, a prize will almost always be awarded to the most senior researcher involved in a project, even if all the work was done by a graduate student. This was later formulated by Stephen Stigler as Stigler's law of eponymy – "No scientific discovery is named after its original discoverer" – with Stigler explicitly naming Merton as the true discoverer, making his "law" an example of itself.
Merton furthermore argued that in the scientific community the Matthew effect reaches beyond simple reputation to influence the wider communication system, playing a part in social selection processes and resulting in a concentration of resources and talent. He gave as an example the disproportionate visibility given to articles from acknowledged authors, at the expense of equally valid or superior articles written by unknown authors. He also noted that the concentration of attention on eminent individuals can lead to an increase in their self-assurance, pushing them to perform research in important but risky problem areas.
As credit is valued in science, specific claims of the Matthew effect are contentious. Many examples below exemplify more famous scientists getting credit for discoveries due to their fame, even as other less notable scientists had preempted their work.
- Experiments manipulating download counts or bestseller lists for books and music have shown consumer activity follows the apparent popularity.
- In algorithmic information theory, the notion of Kolmogorov complexity is named after the famous mathematician Andrey Kolmogorov even though it was independently discovered and published by Ray Solomonoff a year before Kolmogorov. Li and Vitanyi, in "An Introduction to Kolmogorov Complexity and Its Applications" (p. 84), write:
- Ray Solomonoff ... introduced [what is now known as] "Kolmogorov complexity" in a long journal paper in 1964. ... This makes Solomonoff the first inventor and raises the question whether we should talk about Solomonoff complexity. ...
- There are many uncontroversial examples of the Matthew effect in mathematics, where a concept is due to one mathematician (and well-documented as such), but is attributed to a later (possibly much later), more famous mathematician who worked on it. For instance, the Poincaré disk model and Poincaré half-plane model of hyperbolic space are both named for Henri Poincaré, but were introduced by Eugenio Beltrami in 1868 (when Poincaré was 14 and had not as yet contributed to hyperbolic geometry).
- A model for career progress quantitatively incorporates the Matthew Effect in order to predict the distribution of individual career length in competitive professions. The model predictions are validated by analyzing the empirical distributions of career length for careers in science and professional sports (e.g. Major League Baseball). As a result, the disparity between the large number of short careers and the relatively small number of extremely long careers can be explained by the "rich-get-richer" mechanism, which in this framework, provides more experienced and more reputable individuals with a competitive advantage in obtaining new career opportunities.
- In his 2011 book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker refers to the Matthew Effect in societies, whereby everything seems to go right in some, and wrong in others. He speculates in Chapter 9 that this could be the result of a positive feedback loop in which reckless behavior by some individuals creates a chaotic environment that encourages reckless behavior by others. He cites research by Martin Daly and Margo Wilson showing that the more unstable the environment, the more steeply people discount the future, and thus the less forward-looking their behavior.
- A large Matthew effect was discovered in a study of science funding in the Netherlands, where winners just above the funding threshold were found to accumulate more than twice as much funding during the subsequent eight years as non-winners with near-identical review scores that fell just below the threshold.
In science, dramatic differences in the productivity may be explained by three phenomena: sacred spark, cumulative advantage, and search costs minimization by journal editors. The sacred spark paradigm suggests that scientists differ in their initial abilities, talent, skills, persistence, work habits, etc. that provide particular individuals with an early advantage. These factors have a multiplicative effect which helps these scholars succeed later. The cumulative advantage model argues that an initial success helps a researcher gain access to resources (e.g., teaching release, best graduate students, funding, facilities, etc.), which in turn results in further success. Search costs minimization by journal editors takes place when editors try to save time and effort by consciously or subconsciously selecting articles from well-known scholars. Whereas the exact mechanism underlying these phenomena is yet unknown, it is documented that a minority of all academics produce the most research output and attract the most citations.
In education, the term "Matthew effect" has been adopted by psychologist Keith Stanovich to describe a phenomenon observed in research on how new readers acquire the skills to read: early success in acquiring reading skills usually leads to later successes in reading as the learner grows, while failing to learn to read before the third or fourth year of schooling may be indicative of lifelong problems in learning new skills.
This is because children who fall behind in reading would read less, increasing the gap between them and their peers. Later, when students need to "read to learn" (where before they were learning to read), their reading difficulty creates difficulty in most other subjects. In this way they fall further and further behind in school, dropping out at a much higher rate than their peers.
In the words of Stanovich:
Slow reading acquisition has cognitive, behavioral, and motivational consequences that slow the development of other cognitive skills and inhibit performance on many academic tasks. In short, as reading develops, other cognitive processes linked to it track the level of reading skill. Knowledge bases that are in reciprocal relationships with reading are also inhibited from further development. The longer this developmental sequence is allowed to continue, the more generalized the deficits will become, seeping into more and more areas of cognition and behavior. Or to put it more simply – and sadly – in the words of a tearful nine-year-old, already falling frustratingly behind his peers in reading progress, "Reading affects everything you do."
The Matthew effect plays a role in today's educational system.
Students around the United States participate in the SAT every year to then send those scores to the colleges they are applying too. The distributor of the SAT, the College board, conducted a study based on the income earned by the families of the test takers. The results showed the Matthew effect is prevalent when it comes to a family's economic earnings. "Students from families earning more than $200,000 a year average a combined score of 1,714, while students from families earning under $20,000 a year average a combined score of 1,326."
Not only do students with a wealthier family score better, but statistics show that students with parents that have accomplished more in school perform better as well,"A student with a parent with a graduate degree, for example, on average scores 300 points higher on their SATs compared to a student with a parent with only a high school degree.
In network science, the Matthew effect is used to describe the preferential attachment of earlier nodes in a network, which explains that these nodes tend to attract more links early on. "Because of preferential attachment, a node that acquires more connections than another one will increase its connectivity at a higher rate, and thus an initial difference in the connectivity between two nodes will increase further as the network grows, while the degree of individual nodes will grow proportional with the square root of time." The Matthew Effect therefore explains the growth of some nodes in vast networks such as the Internet.
Markets with social influence
Social influence often induces a rich-get-richer phenomenon where popular products tend to become even more popular. An example of the Matthew Effect’s role on social influence. Salganik, Dodds, and Watts created an experimental virtual market named MUSICLAB. In MUSICLAB, people could listen to music and choose to download the songs they enjoyed the most. The song choices were unknown songs produced by unknown bands. There were two groups tested; one group was given zero additional information on the songs and one group was told the popularity of each song and the amount of times it had previously been downloaded. As a result, the group that saw which songs were the most popular and were downloaded the most were then bias to choose those songs as well. The songs that were most popular and downloaded the most stayed at the top of the list and consistently received the most plays. To summarize the experiments findings, the performance rankings had the largest effect boosting expected downloads the most. Download rankings had a decent effect; however, not as impactful as the performance rankings. Also, Abeliuk et al. (2016) proved that when utilizing “performance rankings”, a monopoly will be created for the most popular songs.
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