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Matthew effect

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Dec 16, 2021

The Matthew effect of accumulated advantage, Matthew principle, or Matthew effect for short, is sometimes summarized by the adage “the rich get richer and the poor get poorer“.[1][2] 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 W. 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.[3]

The rich get richer and the poor get poorer

The term was coined by sociologist Robert K. Merton in 1968[4] 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.[5]

The Matthew effect may largely be explained by Preferential attachment whereby individuals probabilistically accrue a total reward (eg., popularity, friends, wealth) in proportion to their existing degree. This has the net effect of it being increasingly difficult for low ranked individuals to increase their totals, as they have fewer resources to risk over time; and increasingly easy for high rank individuals to preserve a large total, as they have a large amount to risk.[6]

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The concept is named according to two of the parables of Jesus in the synoptic Gospels (Table 2, of the Eusebian Canons).

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.

Matthew 25:29, RSV.

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.

Luke 19:26, RSV.

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.

Mark 4:25, RSV.

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.

Luke 8:18, RSV.

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.”

Matthew 13:11–12, RSV.

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.[4][7] 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.[4]

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