What is the “Matthew Effect” and why it matters

The term Matthew Effect was first coined by Robert K. Merton, a Genius sociologist of Columbia, and it takes it’s name from 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.
—Matthew 25:29, New Revised Standard Version.

The Matthew Effect is the notion that a small initial difference in performance of any 2 people will inevitably grow, because the person who is a little bit ahead will get so many more opportunities and advantages, that they will eventually end up being far ahead.

As an example by Malcolm Gladwell:

If you are a young boy, born in October, November or December who has goals to become a professional soccer or hockey player, the deck is stacked against you. There’s not much you can do – you should probably give up.

Despite Malcolm’s tongue-in-cheek comment, the truth is that an extraordinary number of hockey players are born in the first 3 or 4 months of the year. Why?

From an interview with Malcolm:

It’s a beautiful example of a self-fulfilling prophecy. In Canada, the eligibility cutoff for age-class hockey programs is Jan. 1. Canada also takes hockey really seriously, so coaches start streaming the best hockey players into elite programs, where they practice more and play more games and get better coaching, as early as 8 or 9. But who tends to be the “best” player at age 8 or 8? The oldest, of course — the kids born nearest the cut-off date, who can be as much as almost a year older than kids born at the other end of the cut-off date. When you are 8 years old, 10 or 11 extra months of maturity means a lot.

So those kids get special attention. That’s why there are more players in the NHL born in January and February and March than any other months. You see the same pattern, to an even more extreme degree, in soccer in Europe and baseball here in the U.S. It’s one of those bizarre, little-remarked-upon facts of professional sports. They’re biased against kids with the wrong birthday.

After checking out Malcolm’s Gladwell’s book, “Outliers,” and his explanation of why Canadian hockey players born early in the year have a big advantage, ESPN conducted a little study: They tallied up all the NHL players from this season who were born from 1980 to 1990. Sure enough: Many more were born early in the year than late. Here are the results.

Month Players
January 51
February 46
March 61
April 49
May 46
June 49
July 36
August 41
September 36
October 34
November 33
December 30

We see exactly the same effects in school systems. The relatively younger kids in the class typically underperform the oldest kids – and that underperformance lasts into the college years. Kids born in the last 3 months of their age cohort in school are ~10% less likely to go to college than their peers.

The takeaways?

  1. Had the officials in charge of the hockey league just started a parallel league, with a cut-off in late summer – that could have leveled up the playing field, and taken advantage of talented hockey players that might have otherwise been at a disadvantage because of the month of year they were born.
  2. This example shows how profound of an effect encouragement and persistence can have on your success. The best people in a certain field tend to feed off of an incremental initial advantage over their peers and build on top of that.
  3. Talent is over-rated. You can plough through any disadvantages (real or perceived) with encouragement and persistence.
  4. If that encouragement is not externally available (and for the most part when you’re starting off with anything – a new skill, a new project, whatever – it’s generally not), it needs to come from the inside.

I’ll be covering this topic from a different angle, that is complementary to the notion of persistence being a key factor to success, in a future blog post.

16. October 2011 by Kunal Punjabi
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