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Matthew Effect

Definition

Whether it’s fame, success, or wealth, someone who has an existing advantage can more easily acquire it versus someone who has less. That advantage compounds over time.

The adage “the rich get richer, and the poor get poorer” is often invoked to describe the effect.

Why Use It

While luck plays a role in success, an early advantage, no matter how small, can change the future course of events.

Keeping this in mind will help you recognize how the effect transforms life trajectories.

When to Use It

It’s easy to believe in a meritocracy and that a hard-working, talented person is more likely to succeed than others, but that’s not always the case.

Look at the widening gap between the haves and have nots. Notice how the same dynamic plays out in many fields: the smartest folks are not always the most lauded, and the most talented folks are not always the most famous.

Prior stature in life is a much higher determinant in outcomes than talent or ability.

How to Use It

Finding early success offers a fundamental advantage that makes following successes more likely.

A real-world example from academia that illustrates this effect well is when a senior researcher accepts an award for a graduate student’s outsized effort on that project.

How to Misuse It

While probability plays an outsized role in determining success, and folks who have more than others are more likely to reap the rewards, that doesn’t mean the opposite never occurs.

Next Step

Notice how others benefit from this effect and kindle success for yourself once you’ve achieved some form of it. The earlier you find it, the more likely you are to change future outcomes.

Where it Came From

The Matthew effect, aka The Matthew effect of accumulated advantage, aka the Matthew principle, was coined by Robert K. Merton and was named after two parables:

  • For unto everyone that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him, that hath not shall be taken even that which he hath. -Matthew 25:29, RSV
  • I tell you that to everyone who has will more be given, but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away. -Luke 19:26, RSV

While at the start, the effect focused on the recognition inequality scientists faced throughout their careers. Norman Storer from Columbia University expanded its usage into other fields.

What Are Mental Models?

Mental models are thinking tools that help guide and shape our perceptions of the world. They simplify complexity so we can understand life better, make decisions confidently, and solve problems.

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Deep Dive Into Mental Models

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