The Matthew Effect
“For those who have everything, much will be given. For those that have nothing, much will be taken.”
Have you ever noticed those people who seem to get everything – you know, the favourites of the group.
As I was growing up, I would see young players get opportunities, attention, praise, and receive more than I ever did.
I would get jealous of it.
I would think, What have they done to deserve that? Why don’t I get noticed?
And now I realise I was witnessing The Matthew Effect.
In today’s piece, I’ll explain what it is, what it creates, and how you can use it as a positive force for you, whether it’s as an individual or as a leader.
What is the Matthew Effect?
The Matthew Effect was coined by sociologist Robert Merton (1968) based on a verse in the Gospel of Matthew (13:12) and later developed in many other contexts, including economics, education, network effects, and academic research (including sport).
It describes two patterns:
- Those who begin with an advantage build more advantages over time.
- Those who begin with disadvantage become more disadvantaged over time.
It is the slow buildup of efforts and successes that then begin to compound into bigger effects that end in success, wealth, and even ability.
Those who do not read only strengthen their ability to not read, lose motivation, are not encouraged in their reading ability, and form limiting beliefs.
In sport, athletes who are initially given praise for showing promise in a skill are encouraged and motivated to learn, develop, and perform the skill further. This continuous cycle spirals in more opportunities, better coaching, facilities, and so on.
But the opposite is also true.
An athlete that is seen as not so good, with not so much promise, are not given the opportunities to learn and develop and risk spiralling downward.
And this give a range of negative effects:
Lost potential: those who are deemed lower in ability or start out disadvantaged are at risk of getting lost in the numbers and the untapped potential of those individuals along with it.
Increased inequality: the effect exaggerates the inequalities to begin with, but as time passes, this gap is widened through the successful getting more successful and the disadvantaged becoming more disadvantaged.
Demotivation: those that face constant barriers become demotivated from the lack of progress and risk disengagement due to the stacked odds against them.
So how do we stop ourselves (or others) from getting into the downward spiral and into the upward spiral in The Matthew Effect?
Creating an upward spiral
Having awareness first gives us the opportunity to start recognising what may be in our way of progress.
This may take some honesty and vulnerability (which we know is a strength), and asking yourself tough questions.
Are you caught up in limited beliefs and thinking?
Are you too easily blaming others for your situation?
Are you creating an environment that is biased towards promising individuals?
Are your expectations too high?
Have you started to become complacent?
Have you not been paying attention to something that you perhaps should have been?
The simple skill of awareness can start to change your outlook and begin to shift momentum away from a downward spiral.
Compounded small steps
To be the one that gets everything we may want to be at a level that we aren’t at yet.
And the idea of taking the first step, possibly as a beginner, is way less glamorous.
The way we conquer this is to start by taking the first small step, and then another, and another.
Get yourself some momentum to get things moving in the right direction.
It won’t be pretty; you won’t look like the expert that you hope to be, and that’s ok.
Because over time, by continuously taking those smaller steps upward, you’ll begin to take bigger steps, and after a while, you’ll be striding it out!
Let’s say you’re a coach, and you’re placing beliefs on an athlete that they are gifted, talented, or born to do it.
This type of bias can start the Matthew effect for that athlete (those who have everything, more will be given) and it risks missing out on others abilities also.
If you’re an athlete and you hear this type of belief towards you, you might start taking it easy because you’re receiving so much that you become complacent, and that’s not good either.
Or perhaps you label yourself as not good enough and say that others are better than you, and you begin the downward spiral.
Or even try to stop labelling others that you are competing with as gifted and talented.
Reduce the labels that you give yourself, especially when it comes to talent, success, or outcome. The way you view yourself is a powerful tool in staying away from behaviours that create a downward spiral.
Reframe your view
If you aren’t where you want to be right now, Know that, as Ted Lasso would say, you’re a work in progmess, and know that you aren’t where you want to be yet!
Use the simple word ‘yet’ to help you reframe your experience.
“I’m not good at that yet.”
“I’m not as good as them yet.”
For every time you catch your limiting beliefs, choose to reframe them towards a more optimistic, motivating outlook.
Don’t write yourself or someone else off in the short term.
Keep your vision with a long term perspective.
Know that you may not see the progress of the outcome right away.
If there’s anything I’ve learned in sports, it’s that not always the most talented at a young age make it.
It’s the ones that have the character, the work ethic, the plans, the discipline, and the perseverance.
So don’t write them off too early.
Most importantly, don’t write yourself off too early.
I’m sure you can see the Matthew Effect playing out in your life. I know I have. I was a kid that nearly got overlooked and written off.
And my parting advice would be this: don’t let it define you or your situation.
Others may have better opportunities than you right now.
But the more you dwell on what you don’t have or how hard you’ve had it, the more energy you give to something you can’t control.
Choose to focus on what you can control, what action you can do, what you would do, and what you think and believe about yourself.
Choose to take upward steps, and watch as things begin to spiral.
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