Much of life, however, is characterized by what the sociologist Robert Merton called the Matthew Effect, named after a sentence from the book of Matthew in the Bible, which laments “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 was referring specifically to wealth (hence the phrase “the rich get richer and the poor get poorer”), but Merton argued that the same rule applied to success more generally. Success early on in an individual’s career, that is, confers on them certain structural advantages that make subsequent successes much more likely, regardless of their intrinsic aptitude.
Merton was writing about scientific careers, but as the sociologist Daniel Rigney argues in his recent book The Matthew Effect, the same forces apply to most other careers as well. Success leads to prominence and recognition, which leads in turn to more opportunities to succeed, more resources with which to achieve success, and more likelihood of your subsequent successes being noticed and attributed to you.
Isolating the effects of this accumulated advantage from differences in innate talent or hard work is difficult, but a number of studies have found that no matter how carefully one tries to select a pool of people with similar potential, their fortunes will diverge wildly over time, consistent with Merton’s theory. For example, it is known that college students who graduate during a weak economy earn less, on average, than students who graduate in a strong economy. On its own, that doesn’t sound too surprising, but the kicker is that this difference applies not just to the years of the recession itself, but continues to accumulate over decades. Because the timing of one’s graduation obviously has nothing to do with one’s innate talent, the persistence of these effects is strong evidence that the Matthew Effect is present everywhere." - Everything Is Obvious by Duncan J. Watts (via sociolab)