The Matthew Effect

The Matthew Effect was named by sociologist Robert Merton who named if after a sentence from the Book of Matthew in the Bible, viz., “For those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance, but for those who have nothing, even that will be taken away.” Matthew was specifically referring to wealth (the rich get richer and the poor get poorer). And of course this is true. Being born into wealth carries substantial advantages, but Merton was arguing that the rule applied to success in general. Success leads to prominence and recognition. This, in turn, leads to more opportunities to succeed and more resources with which to achieve success. There is a greater likelihood of your subsequent success being noticed and attributed to you, even though others might have played a key role.

Researchers have attempted to study this effect and to differentiate it from individual potential by trying to select pools of people with similar potential and seeing how they develop. However, no matter how carefully researchers attempt to do so, their futures tend to diverge wildly over time, which is consistent with Merton’s theory. It is known that college students who graduate during a weak economy earn less, on average, than students who graduate during a strong economy. This difference tends to persist throughout the students’ subsequent career. And surely the economy in which they graduate is a random effect.

So the common sense notion that an individual’s success is solely due to the individual’s unique attributes is false. Although the individual’s unique attributes do play a role, there are also chance or random factors.

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