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The Mattew Effect: implications in social psychology

The St. Matthew effect, or simply Matthew effect or Mattew principle, indicates a process whereby, in multiple domains, newly available resources are allocated to the majority of those who already own them. As can be easily inferred, its scope of application is theoretically boundless.

Just to cite a few examples:

  • Economic: According to Matthew’s principle, the accumulation of new wealth will favor those who already have a majority of it, while those who are less wealthy will tend to have less and less
  • School learning: Those who learn reading skills at an early age will tend to be facilitated in learning, as opposed to those who learn to read late (In this case, the Matthew effect is related to the Pygmalion effect1)
  • Sociology: The more people one knows, the more one is likely to know, and vice versa
  • Scientific research: Given the same quality of work, those who already have publications under their belt are more likely to get published
  • Social media: He is much more likely to gain a following who already has a significant one
    …and so on. This list could potentially be endless

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Mattew effect explanation

It is possible that, as a first impression, Matthew’s principle may be totally baseless, but things are exactly the opposite.

His proof, derived from mathematical principles, rests 100% on scientific grounds; so scientific, that I prefer to leave it to others (personally, I consider it of little relevance to the readers of this blog; if interested you will find it in this article).

Polya’s urn: Previous draws influence future ones

We will just consider the following example (also known as Polya’s urn): if an urn contains one green and one red marble, the probability of drawing one rather than another is 50 percent. Now, we add one of the colors drawn: if, for example, green comes out, we add another green one: it will then be two greens and one red marble. The probability has already increased (66%-33%) in favor of the green marbles. If we were to draw another green one now, adding one more would be 3 blue and 1 red, and drawing after the draw would make it almost impossible to catch a red one.
This has two implications. The first: few initial events determine the course of subsequent ones; the second, once an inequality situation is determined, it is almost impossible to reverse it.

History of the Mattew effect

The parable of the talents from the Gospel of Matthew, from which the Mattew effect takes his name. Photo by lanuovabq.it

For whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them.

Mattew 25:29

The etymology of the term comes from the verse above, taken from the parable of the talents in Matthew’s Gospel.
The first to describe the phenomenon, giving it the name cumulative advantage theory, was physicist Derek J. de Solla Price.

He examined citations received from various scientific articles. Assuming we had 2 articles, A and B, he imagined that B cited A in the bibliography. If, at this point, a third article C cited either of the first two, B would have a citation only if C cited it directly, while A in either case (by citing B, in fact, A is also cited indirectly). In this, A’s citations are more likely to grow than B’s, and the gap grows larger and larger as citations grow. Similarly, for example, the more people who know English, the more they will need to learn it, and so on.
The term was made famous by sociologist Robert K. Merton, father of Nobel laureate Robert C. Merton, who in 1968 referred to the amplification of small initial advantages as the “St. Matthew Effect.” He, in a Science article2, highlighted the discrepancy in recognition, given equal work, between established and unknown authors in science (as examined in the opening example).

Today, another name for the Matthew effect is preferential attachment theory: as the definition suggests, it is the orientation of a choice based on what has already been selected by others.

Implications of the Mattew effect in social psychology: being memorable is everything

Foto di Brett Jordan su Unsplash

If it is clear how small initial advantages generate significant differences in the long run, the question then remains how to create that small initial advantage.
In the social arena, the winning choice is as simple as it is effective: you have to be memorable. And it doesn’t end there: as we will see shortly, memorability itself is an application of the Matthew effect!

The best example is represented by large companies. They need a small initial group of consumers (the early adopters) to choose their product, at the expense of the competition. This will be enough to trigger the series of events that, thanks to the Matthew effect, will result in its spotty diffusion.

The determining factor of choice, as mentioned, has to do with memorability. In a world saturated with competitors, the consumer does not have the material time to evaluate the pros and cons of each offer: the brand and product must, therefore, enter his or her memory, so that the choice of the product becomes an automatic association between a need and its satisfaction.

How to become memorable? Nothing simpler: the beauty of this whole thing, is that if activating the St. Matthew effect requires a little initial imbalance, creating that imbalance is, at least in the social sphere, a Matthew effect itself!

Do I want to build a large following on social media? The more people follow me, the more will start to follow me (first Matthew effect). How do I convince someone to follow me if I have no followers? The more people will remember me, the more likely others will do the same (second Matthew effect).
If then, as we have seen, memorability is synonymous with choice, that’s it! Of course, not everyone who remembers a product will choose it, but it doesn’t matter. If even a small portion of all those who consider it begin to buy it, the virtuous circle of the St. Matthew effect has already been activated.
In this case, what is true for sales is also true for any form of human interaction. difficult to make new acquaintances if no one remembers me. Memorability is the first step: what the St. Matthew effect adds, however, is that it is often a decisive step.

The “side effects” of the St. Matthew effect

Everything that can be invented has been invented

Charles Duell

This phrase is attributed to Charles Duell, an employee of the U.S. Patent Office. Do you know what year it was uttered? It was 1899.
Although it rightfully enters the list of the most misquotes in history, it contains a kernel of truth: nowadays, the difference isn’t made so much by the quality of something, but is due to its ability to spread.
Think about that for a moment. How much better looking than the others was that boy who all the girls in high school liked? How much of an advantage will it really give to use one brand of detergent over another?
The dark side of the Matthew effect is that as connections increase, the quality of what is offered necessarily decreases. Would you work for a lifetime on a product if no one even got to know it? Probably not. Just as, if we delegate our communication skills to social, it becomes extremely difficult to establish deep relationships, not connections that stop at the surface.
In any case, if we cannot change the way we function, at least it is possible to use it to our advantage. Understanding how the Matthew effect works, among many other things, can help de-emphasize ourselves.

Those who seem better are not necessarily really better; on the contrary: perhaps, the reason for their success has only partially to do with merit.


  1. Pygmalion effect, Robert Rosenthal, 2010 ↩︎
  2. The Mattew effect in science, Robert K Merton, 1968 ↩︎

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