Is Life Unfair? The Matthew Effect
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For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.
Matthew 25:29 NRSV
Science sociologist Robert K. Merton wrote a pivotal paper entitled The Matthew Effect in Science. Inspired by the biblical verse Matthew 25:29, Robert Merton saw that scientists of greater renown were given more recognition, awards, and more discoveries were attributed to them—even in cases when another, lesser-known scientist had actually made the discovery years prior. “As originally identified, the Matthew Effect was construed in terms of enhancement of the position of already eminent scientists who are given disproportionate credit in cases of collaboration or of independent multiple discoveries.” (The Matthew Effect in Science by Robert K. Merton, Science, January 5, 1968, science.sciencemag.org) Merton saw both society and the advantaged individual interacting in a way that “lead to the concentration of scientific resources and talent.” Essentially, people trust and look up to famous people or people of accomplishment. That trust and validation from society, in turn, causes the advantaged individual to develop self-assurance which can lead to even greater advantage as the person of accomplishment’s self-assurance—encourages them to search out risky but important problems and to highlight the results of their inquiry (Merton). In other words, advantaged people tend to not only tackle things that will make them even more famous but also feel okay about tooting their own horn.
Today, sociologists, economists, and even biologists find the Matthew Effect in several aspects of life and society. One way it is intentionally used is in the self-help world—especially for business and entrepreneurs. “The wealthy are able to capitalize on their success and status to become more affluent. More telling is that there are those who strategically leverage the Matthew Effect to become dramatically wealthier as well as more powerful. At the same time, for those less affluent, there are many situations where they can gain considerable pecuniary advantages by employing the Matthew Effect.” (How the Rich Get Very Rich: Leveraging the Matthew Effect by Russ Alan Prince, April 8, 2015, forbes.com) Some of the key ways someone who is not famous or rich but wants to be is to work very hard to become popular. Being well known in the field you are interested in succeeding in is extremely important if you want to take advantage of the Matthew Effect. Also, surround yourself with very talented people and then recruit their talents in your entrepreneurial efforts. Lastly, do not hesitate to toot your own horn. Learn the fine art of bragging without bragging. Self-made millionaires (and billionaires) overwhelmingly use the Matthew Effect to supercharge their successes. Again: 1. Become well known in your field of interest 2. Seek out and surround yourself with people who have skills that you could use 3. Do not hesitate to point out your accomplishments (without, however, annoying people).
Essentially, the Matthew Effect can be seen as the old saying, “The rich get richer while the poor get poorer.” Sadly, in children, the Matthew Effect can be seen playing out in an unbelievably harsh way. From the moment a child enters kindergarten to the time he or she (hopefully) graduates high school—before the child is even ten—his or her course is nearly statistically set in stone. The Matthew Effect in education not only mirrors the rich get richer aspect as in the higher performing children become increasingly higher performing, the poor get poorer aspect happens too in that the kids who are in the lower ranks get worse and worse as time goes on. A paper that is highly referenced is Matthew Effects in Reading: Some Consequences of Individual Differences in the Acquisition of Literacy by Keith Stanovich, 1986, Reading Research Quarterly (readingrockets.org) The first grade is a very pivotal time for children’s education—specifically for reading. Education has an important arc: we first learn to read then we read to learn. Dr. Stanovich was able to see that children who struggled in the first grade with reading would eventually do poorly in all of their subjects. In his paper, he cited some important aspects that caused the slow reader to fall increasingly behind. First, there was the actual exposure to fewer words in the first grade as they lagged significantly behind the other kids and were exposed to less reading. Additionally, if the slow reader was not properly identified, they would very often be exposed to materials that were far too difficult for them—causing them to feel defeated and to dislike reading. Kids that were good at reading enjoyed reading and would read more at home. There was also a difference in peer selection. Children that did not like reading not only would avoid reading they would seek out peers who also did not like reading. Likewise, kids that enjoyed reading would seek out peers who also enjoyed reading. By the time slow readers reached fifth grade, what was once simply a difficulty in reading grows in a general difficulty in learning, and the slow readers begin to slip in all subjects. Conversely, the kids who were good at reading, came to love reading, and hung out with other readers begin to really separate from the pack, and their advancement begins to accelerate, as by fifth-grade one needs to read to learn. Sadly, for the ones who are still struggling with learning to read, they fall even farther and farther behind. There was some hope—especially with early intervention. Dr. Stanovich saw that if the poor readers in the first grade were identified, the children could be aided greatly and would not only get pretty close to the average readers, they would not fall behind in all subjects by the time they reached the fifth grade.
“The Matthew Effects are not only about the progressive decline of slow starters but also about the widening gap between slow starters and fast starters.” That was the opening sentence to Dr. Stanovich’s paper Matthew Effects in Reading: Some Consequences of Individual Differences in Acquisition of Literacy, and I’m going to be honest, it was a seriously depressing read. I just felt so sad for the kids genuinely struggling to read, and in time, giving up on learning altogether. In fact, the paper used a technical term for it: learned helplessness. It seemed very sad to me that how well you read at six could very well determine your future. Luckily, in my research on the Matthew Effect a lot of social scientists and other scholars have found many examples where the Matthew Effect did not play a part—where the extremely poor or disadvantaged did not become poorer, rather, rose to become extremely successful. Likewise, many people who did miserably in school—even hated school—went on to be incredible successes.
I think in the end, life is unfair. However, it doesn’t mean that people have to be unfair. So, I think it's important to remember that in many cases the Matthew Effect is at play and to be humble with your successes and compassionate towards the poor. Lastly, I do think the Matthew Effect does offer some clues for the poor and striving to rise up the ranks of their profession and by super-charging their successes. Get out and meet people, surround yourself with talented people, and don’t be afraid to let people know what makes you special.
Jennifer Barnick is a painter and writer. She studied painting at the San Francisco Art Institute. She founded Twenty-two Twenty-eight. “One of the most exciting aspects of Twenty-two Twenty-eight is building a channel for artists and writers to share their work with the world.”
Check out Jennifer’s book. You can read the first short story for free on Amazon here.