Interview with Daniel Rigney, author of The Matthew Effect

Daniel RigneyThe following is an interview with Daniel Rigney author of the just-published The Matthew Effect: How Advantage Begets Further Advantage.

Question: What is the “Matthew effect”?

Daniel Rigney: The distinguished sociologist Robert Merton coined the term “Matthew effect” in 1968 to refer to the often-observed tendency in the social world for advantage to beget further advantage and for disadvantage to beget further disadvantage over time, widening the gap between those who have more and those who have less. Merton borrowed the term from a biblical scripture in the Gospel of Matthew that states that to those who have, more will be given. His original research examined the accumulation of prestige among prominent scientists. Merton and his colleagues found that scientists who experience early success in their careers tend to attract further advantages, such as prominent research positions and generous grants, which further contribute to their prestige and thus further amplify their success in a continuing cycle.

Although Merton studied this self-amplifying cycle in scientific institutions, the essential idea applies to the accumulation of advantages of any kind—cultural, economic, political, or psychological. Following Merton’s original research at Columbia University, numerous other scholars in a broad range of fields have further investigated Matthew effects. This book brings these widely scattered fragments of literature together for the first time and presents them as a coherent whole. I regard the Matthew effect as one of the least known but most important concepts in the social sciences. I wrote the book to bring this concept to the wider attention not only of my fellow social scientists, but also of policy makers, students, and the general public.

Q: How does advantage beget further advantage?

DR: The accumulation of advantage works in a manner similar to the accumulation of compound interest in a bank account. If the interest on our principal is continually returned to principal, the interest earns interest, and our account grows ever more rapidly. What we have done is to create a positive feedback loop in which the account’s output is amplified and returned to the account as new input. This basic feedback process is evident in many other facets of life as well. For example, educational psychologists find that children who like to read tend to read more. Reading more helps to make them better readers, further enhancing their enjoyment of reading. In this way the process feeds back upon itself, creating a self-perpetuating cycle. Or to take an example from politics, consider the advantages of incumbency. Candidates elected to office benefit from their public prominence, becoming increasingly well known to voters, and their growing familiarity and name recognition enhances their chances of winning again. Success tends to breed further success.

Q: If advantage tends to breed further advantage, does disadvantage likewise tend to breed further disadvantage?

DR: Unfortunately, yes. The person caught in a descending spiral of debt may find it increasingly difficult to reach financial solvency. Similarly, the child who hates to read will tend to read less, hampering the development of reading proficiency and academic success, and making school an ever more discouraging experience. In the absence of intervention, those caught in downward spirals of this sort are likely to face difficult futures—sometimes through no fault of their own. Understanding this basic dynamic is essential to those working in education and the social services, such as social work, who encounter daily the effects of such downward spirals on the lives of their students and clients.

Q: Does advantage always beget further advantage? Is the Matthew effect an iron law of social life?

DR: Certainly not. Though it is often said that “the rich get richer and the poor get poorer,” we know that things do not always turn out this way, whether in the economy or in any other sphere of life. Sometimes the rich get poorer (as in deep recessions) and sometimes the poor get richer. The Matthew effect only increases the probability that success will lead to more success if other things are equal. But other things are never equal, and many other factors operate in the social world to influence outcomes. Nonetheless, Matthew effects are clearly among the important factors that determine success or failure. We cannot understand social inequalities without understanding this basic process.

The concept of the Matthew effect deserves to be much more widely known than it currently is. Fortunately, it is now gaining wider visibility. Malcolm Gladwell’s recent best-selling book, Outliers, devotes a chapter to it. My hope is that my book will serve as a more detailed and thorough introduction to the subject for those who realize the crucial importance of Matthew effects and want to know more about them. In my wildest dreams I imagine that the concept eventually gains widespread familiarity among the general public, and that it influences public thought and discussion about the issues of our time.

Q: What implications do Matthew effects have for policy makers?

DR: Matthew effects are not inevitable. Counterforces may be introduced into social systems to diminish or even reverse their more destructive consequences. This is where social policy comes into play. Policy initiatives may be introduced to limit the effects of self-perpetuating cycles of growing advantage and disadvantage, and to restrain the widening inequalities they produce. Historic examples of such counterforces in U.S. history include the abolition of slavery, progressive taxation, social safety nets such as Social Security and Medicare, and civil rights legislation, including affirmative action laws. Without these and similar initiatives, economic and social inequalities in the United States would be even more extreme than they already are, as we continue to lead the advanced industrial world in economic inequality. It is essential that progressive policy makers be keenly aware of Matthew effects and their potentially destructive consequences as they design smart responses to the pressing social justice issues of the twenty-first century.

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