The Matthew effect is a term that comes from the field of sociology or psychology. According to the Matthew effect, current successes are the result of advantages in the past and are achieved less than commonly assumed by someone performing well. This means that the past and advantages that have come about more or less through no fault of one’s own have a greater influence on the success of a person or a company than hard work.
One of the reasons for the Matthew effect is that even small successes – often caused by accidental or non-self-inflicted advantages – draw greater attention to the person or company, making further and greater successes more likely. The result is that the amount of success is significantly higher for a small number of people than for the majority of people.
Where does the term „Matthew effect“ come from?
The term „Matthew Effect“ refers to the parable of the entrusted talents in Matthew’s Gospel (Mt 25:29 LUT). There it states:
„For to him that hath shall be given, that he may have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath.“
Even though the original meaning of the parable from Matthew’s Gospel actually has nothing to do with what is told in the Bible passage, the sociological phenomenon is nevertheless often derived from it.
How was the Matthew effect discovered?
When the American sociologist Robert K. Merton first noticed and defined the phenomenon, he was mainly referring to the frequency of citations of other authors in scientific publications. The sociologist notes that well-known authors are cited more frequently than unknown authors and thus become even better known.
Despite the accuracy of the Matthew effect, citation analyses have shown that the increase in citations of a publication after a success is only short-lived. This can be explained, for example, by the fact that information that is already generally known is no longer cited (or no longer needs to be cited), but it is sufficient for only the name of the author or simply to appear as a mere fact in a text.
In some cases, a Matthew effect also occurs when several authors quote each other as a kind of favour. This is called a citation cartel.
Are there other relevant fields where the Matthew effect occurs?
The Matthew effect can also play a major role in the school environment. For example, in learning-teaching research, the principle of the Matthew effect states that prior knowledge is an essential, decisive factor in terms of predicted learning success. This means that the more prior knowledge a student has, the better new information can be absorbed, processed and applied.
It follows that students with more prior knowledge benefit more from new learning content and can understand and apply it faster and better. Over time, the gap between high-performing and low-performing learners widens. In addition, this leads to the fact that in many cases children from socially better-off families are the ones who have a higher level of prior knowledge due to more opportunities for support or better quality of care before starting school, which further increases the differences between the social classes.
The Matthew effect is also applied in the economic sphere. For example, companies that are already successful often attract further resources and investment, which leads to stronger growth and further strengthening of their market position. This promotes the unequal distribution of resources and market power, putting smaller companies and start-ups at a disadvantage.
Furthermore, the Matthew effect also affects the social environment by limiting social mobility. It means that people with higher social status or education often have better access to more resources and networks, which gives them an advantage over people with lower social status or education. This can lead to a widening social gap and fewer opportunities for upward mobility and social change.
What can be done to mitigate the Matthew Effect?
Depending on the environment and situation, there are various measures that can be taken to reduce the Matthew Effect and promote equal opportunities.
In the school environment, early childhood education and support as well as individual support for pupils are among them. By making educational opportunities and support measures available to all children at an early stage, regardless of their social background, differences in prior knowledge can be reduced. At the same time, teachers should take care to recognise and balance the different learning needs and prerequisites of their pupils in order to sufficiently promote the individual potential of all.
In the business environment, more conscious networking helps to reduce the Matthew effect. Here, people from different social classes and educational backgrounds should regularly be given the opportunity to network and thus potentially benefit from each other.
Furthermore, it makes sense to redistribute resources in a targeted manner so that disadvantaged groups or individuals can be supported.