The Matthew effect, a term coined by sociologists Robert Merton and Harriet Zuckerman, involves the idea that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. This effect reinforces inequalities in society. The term is inspired by the Gospel of Matthew, which states: “Whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them.” In essence, the Matthew Effect describes a cumulative (summed over the long term) advantage or disadvantage arising from initial opportunities.
The Matthew effect is based on the strength of advantages and privileges in a chosen development path. Those who start with an advantage, whether in education, wealth or social connections, are more likely to be able to gain additional opportunities that will further improve their position. This series of events can widen the gap between the privileged and the disadvantaged, which is essentially what happens in any society.
A good example of the Matthew effect can be seen in educational institutions. Students who start with a strong educational background, perhaps due to favorable family circumstances or quality schools (professional teachers), often continue on this quality development path. On the other hand, students who face initial challenges, such as limited access to resources or low-quality schooling, may face barriers that impede their educational progress, reinforcing underdevelopment.
Those with an initial financial advantage, such as family wealth or access to other forms of capital, are better placed to take advantage of investment opportunities and generate additional income. Conversely, those without such advantages may face barriers to developing their capital, widening the financial inequality gap.
While the Matthew effect mainly highlights the compound nature of advantages, it serves as a call to action to create more equitable systems. Policies aimed at ensuring equal educational opportunities and reducing economic inequalities (indirectly, individuals financial position depends on education, but directly this could be addressed, for example, by setting minimum wages in certain sectors) can contribute to a fairer and more equal society.