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Matthew Effect: what it is and how it describes injustices

Matthew Effect: what it is and how it describes injustices

May 17, 2024

Something that many social scientists have asked themselves is why those people to whom certain material or immaterial benefits are attributed end up receiving these benefits effectively. And the same thing, but the other way around: how is it that people who have less benefits are also less likely to access them.

There have been many concepts and theories developed to offer answers to the above. These concepts and theories have been thought and applied from different areas. For example, social psychology, organizational psychology, economics or social policy, among others. One of those that have been used since the mid-twentieth century in psychology and that of sociology is the Matthew Effect . Next we will explain what this effect consists of and how it has been applied to explain different phenomena.


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Why is it called Matthew Effect?

The Matthew Effect is also known as the Saint Matthew Effect. It is called like that since a biblical passage of the Gospel of Matthew has been taken and reread. Specifically, it is verse 13, chapter 19, which says that "he who has will be given and will have in abundance; but those who do not even have what they have will be taken away. "

In his rereading many interpretations have been given. There are those who have used it to justify the attribution and inequitable distribution of material and immaterial benefits; and there are those who have used it in the opposite direction, to denounce this distribution. In the specific case of the scientific field , the passage has been reread to explain the phenomenon in the sociology of science; issue that we will explain in detail towards the end of this text.


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Dimensions of this social phenomenon

As we have said, there have been different disciplines, both from psychology and related areas, which have tried to explain the process of social distribution of tangible and intangible benefits . Some of the most popular are, for example, the pigmalion effect, the snowball effect or the cumulative effect, among others.

In its case, the Matthew Effect has allowed to pay attention not only to the decision making in the selection and distribution of benefits based on categorization criteria (social stratification), but also allows to think how this connects with the structuring of an individual psychological perception, from which we attribute to certain people a series of values ​​that justify the selection and distribution of benefits.


In this sense, the Matthew Effect occurs through two interrelated dimensions: the process of selection and distribution; and the process of individual perception, related to the activation of our memory and attribution strategies .

1. Selection and distribution processes

There are people or groups of people whose qualities are what we consider necessary to access different benefits. Depending on the context, we can ask ourselves: what are the values ​​that are considered relevant for the distribution of material and immaterial benefits? Based on what criteria are different benefits distributed?

In pyramidal structures and meritocratic models this is quite visible, since it is attributed to a person or entity the faculty to be creditor of the benefits. That person or entity is the one that is recognized in the first, and sometimes unique, place actions and values. This also reduces the chances that the benefits and their conditions of possibility are distributed equally.

2. Processes of individual perception

Broadly speaking, these are values ​​based a priori to associate a person or group of people with a material or immaterial benefit. The overvaluation of the parameters is frequent, where even individually we tend to perceive the top of the pyramid as the most valuable , and from there we also justify that the distribution is decided for the benefit of some and not of others.

Individual perception is influenced by the decision process, and ends up justifying the distribution of benefits among "the best".

Among other things, the Matthew Effect links decisions about the distribution of benefits with a social prestige that is attributed a priori to certain people or groups of people. Likewise The concept has allowed us to think about the gaps in social stratifications , that is to say, how it is that the previous one has an impact on reducing the benefits of those who do not correspond with certain values ​​(for example, prestige).

Inequality in the sociology of science

The Matthew Effect was used by the American sociologist Robert Merton in the 1960s to explain how we attribute the merit of scientific research to just one person, even when other people have participated in a larger proportion .

In other words, it has served to explain how scientific genius is attributed to some people and not others. And how, from this, certain possibilities of action and knowledge production are determined for some and not for others.

Mario Bunge (2002) tells us that in fact different experiments have been carried out on the Matthew Effect in this context. For example, in the 90s, a group of researchers selected fifty scientific articles , they changed the title and the name (for that of some unknown researcher) and sent them to publication to the same magazines where they had originally been published. Almost all were rejected.

It is common for our memory to work from the names of those who already have some scientific or academic recognition, and not from the names of those we do not associate with values ​​such as prestige. In the words of the Argentine epistemologist: "If a Nobel laureate says a rant, it seems in every newspaper, but a dark investigator has a stroke of genius, the public does not know" (Bunge, 2002, pp.1).

So, the Matthew Effect is one of those that contributes to the social stratification of scientific communities , which likewise may be visible in other environments. For example, in the same context the term Matilda Effect has been used to analyze the social and gender stratification of science.

Bibliographic references:

  • Jiménez Rodríguez, J. (2009). The Matthew Effect: a psychological concept. 30 (2): 145-154.
  • Bunge, M. (2002). The San Mateo effect. Polis, Latin American magazine [Online]. Published November 26, 2012, accessed July 2, 2018. Available at //journals.openedition.org/polis/8033.

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