Matthew Effect: Definition & Examples

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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Leslie Bartley

Leslie currently teaches various psychology courses while also working on her PhD in human behavior.

The name of a rich-poor dichotomy phenomenon is called the Matthew Effect and the following lesson will discuss its origin and various applications. Then following this, you can test your newfound knowledge with a quiz!

Definition of the Matthew Effect

The Matthew Effect is social phenomenon often linked to the idea that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. In essence, this refers to a common concept that those who already have status are often placed in situations where they gain more, and those that do not have status typically struggle to achieve more. This phrase has been attributed to sociologist Robert K. Merton and based it off a biblical verse in the Gospel of Matthew.

'For unto every one that have shall be given, and he shall have abundance; but him that have not shall be taken, even that which he have.' Matthew 25:29

Sometimes the Matthew Effect is also referred to as accumulated advantage, where those who have more have an advantage to acquire more. Let's use Tiger Woods as an example. When he was young, his natural talent drew the attention of prominent golf professionals and instructors, helping him hone and perfect his golfing ability. As he grew up, because of these relationships and other connections through his father, he was invited to golfing events that would showcase his talent and help him climb the ranks into the PGA. There were probably many other potential golfers from his peer group that could have compared in skill, but because they lacked the relationships and networking that Tiger had, he excelled from the advantage and they remained stagnate.

Application of the Matthew Effect

This phrase has been used in other fields such as sociology, education, and scientific research to depict social phenomenon. From a sociological lens, Karl Marx's Conflict Theory is a strong example of the Matthew Effect. In Conflict Theory, Marx argued that society functions from conflict among the rich and the poor, emphasizing that the rich construct rules and structure to keep the poor down while increasing their own wealth. The Matthew Effect suggests that wealthy citizens tend to acquire more wealth due to increased accessibility to jobs and investments, while poor citizens often struggle to make ends meet and fall further into poverty due to lack of financial and employment opportunities. Hence the common phrase, 'the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.'

Within the education field, the Matthew Effect has been used to mark when students begin to thrive or fail academically. This was discovered by psychologist Keith Stanovich who studied the difference in academic achievement among elementary school children. He suggested that the third grade is the make it or break it point for students. At this point in their educational career, students who have obtained the fundamental skills for fast and fluent reading will tend to achieve more and increase their knowledge. For students who are struggling to read, this is the point when they will begin to lag, fall behind, and struggle academically.

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