Matthew effect (sociology)

Matthew effect (sociology)

In sociology, the Matthew effect (or accumulated advantage) is the phenomenon where "the rich get richer and the poor get poorer".[1][2] Those who possess power and economic or social capital can leverage those resources to gain more power or capital. The term was first coined by sociologist Robert K. Merton in 1968 and takes its name from a line in the biblical Gospel of Matthew:

For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.


Sociology of science

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.[3][4] 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.


As credit is valued in science, specific claims of the Matthew effect are contentious.

  • There was a controversy involving George Sudarshan and the Nobel Prize in Physics for 2005. Several physicists wrote a letter to the Swedish Academy, protesting that Sudarshan should have been awarded a share of the Prize for the Sudarshan-Glauber representation (or Sudarshan diagonal representation) in quantum optics, for which Roy J. Glauber won his share of the prize. Because the terms of Alfred Nobel's will restrict the number of Nobel Prize winners to three in a given year, the Nobel Committee has often been criticized for allegedly ignoring scientists who did seminal work on a topic while awarding a prize to other scientists for the same topic.
  • The 2000 Nobel Prize in Chemistry went for "The discovery and development of conductive polymers". In a classic example of the Matthew effect, inexplicably the Nobel Committee entirely ignored a substantial previous body of similar work while assigning discovery credit to prominent relative newcomers. Some of the earlier work (e.g., a conductive polymer electronic device [1]) was even considerably more advanced than the Nobelist's. See conductive polymers for citations. Thus, Prof. Dr. György Inzelt at Eötvös Loránd University notes that, while the Nobelists certainly deserve credit for publicising and popularizing the field, conductive polymers had been " ..produced, studied and even applied " well before their work.[5]. See controversy
  • The 1987 Nobel Memorial Prize in economics was awarded to Robert Solow of MIT in major part for his discovery of what is now known as the Solow-Swan model of exogenous economic growth even though Trevor Winchester Swan published a complete and identical version of this model in the same year as Solow.
Ray Solomonoff [...] introduced [what is now known as] 'Kolmogorov complexity' in a long journal paper in 1964. [...] This makes Solomonoff the first inventor and raises the question whether we should talk about Solomonoff complexity. [...]
  • There are many uncontroversial examples of the Matthew effect in mathematics, where a concept is due to one mathematician (and well-documented as such), but is attributed to a later (possibly much later), more famous mathematician who worked on it.
For instance, the Poincaré disk model and Poincaré half-plane model of hyperbolic space are both named for Henri Poincaré, but were introduced by Eugenio Beltrami in 1868 (when Poincaré was 14 and had not as yet contributed to hyperbolic geometry).
  • A model for career progress quantitatively incorporates the Matthew Effect in order to predict the distribution of individual career length in competitive professions. The model predictions are validated by analyzing the empirical distributions of career length for careers in science and professional sports (e.g. Major League Baseball).[7] As a result, the disparity between the large number of short careers and the relatively small number of extremely long careers can be explained by the "rich-get-richer" mechanism, which in this framework, provides more experienced and more reputable individuals with a competitive advantage in obtaining new career opportunities.

See also

Analogous concepts


  1. ^ Gladwell, Malcolm (2008-11-18). Outliers: The Story of Success (1 ed.). Little, Brown and Company. ISBN 0316017922. 
  2. ^ Shaywitz, David A. (2008-11-15). "The Elements of Success". The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved 2009-01-12. 
  3. ^ Merton, Robert K. (1968). The Matthew Effect in Science (PDF). Science 159 (3810), 56–63.
  4. ^ Merton, Robert K. (1988). The Matthew Effect in Science, II: Cumulative advantage and the symbolism of intellectual property (PDF ). ISIS 79, 606–623.
  5. ^ György Inzelt (2008). Conducting Polymers: A New Era in Electrochemistry. pp. 265–269. 
  6. ^ Li, Ming; Paul Vitanyi (1997-02-27). An Introduction to Kolmogorov Complexity and Its Applications (2nd ed.). Springer. ISBN 0387948686. 
  7. ^ Petersen, Alexander M.; Jung, Woo-Sung; Yang, Jae-Suk; Stanley, H. Eugene (2011). "Quantitative and Empirical demonstration of the Matthew Effect in a study of Career Longevity". PNAS 108 (1): 18–23. doi:10.1073/pnas.1016733108. 

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