Matthew Effect: what is it and how he describes injustices

One thing that many social scientists have wondered is why people who are awarded certain material or intangible benefits actually end up enjoying those benefits. And the same thing but the reverse: how come people who have fewer benefits are also less likely to access them.

Many concepts and theories have been developed to provide answers to the above. These concepts and theories have been thought out and applied from different fields. For example, social psychology, organizational psychology, economics or social policy, among others. The Matthew effect is the one that has been used in psychology and sociology since the mid-twentieth century.. Below we will explain what this effect is and how it has been applied to explain different phenomena.

    Why is it called the Matthew Effect?

    The Matthew effect is also known as the St. Matthew effect. It is so called because a biblical passage from the Gospel of Matthew has been taken up and reread. More precisely, it is verse 13, chapter 19, which says that “to him that has, to him shall be given, and he shall have abundance; but from him who does not have, even what he has will be taken away ”.

    Many interpretations have been given in his rereading. Some have used it to justify the inequitable attribution and distribution of tangible and intangible benefits; and some 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; question that we will explain in detail towards the end of this text.

      Dimensions of this social phenomenon

      As we have said, it is different disciplines, both in psychology and in related fields, that have attempted to explain the process of social distribution of tangible and intangible benefits. Some of the most popular are, for example, the Pygmalion effect, the snowball effect or the cumulative effect, among others.

      If so, the Matthew Effect made it possible to pay attention not only to decision-making in the selection and distribution of benefits according to categorization criteria (social stratification), but also to reflect on its link with 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 passes through two interdependent dimensions: the process of selection and distribution; and the process of individual perception, linked to activate our memory and attribution strategies.

      1. Selection and distribution process

      There are people or groups of people whose qualities we consider necessary to access different benefits. Depending on the context, we can ask ourselves which values ​​are considered relevant for the distribution of tangible and intangible benefits? On the basis of what criteria are the different benefits distributed?

      In pyramidal structures and in meritocratic models this is sufficiently visible, because a person or an entity has the power to be a creditor of the benefits. This person or entity is one who is recognized in the first, and sometimes the only, place of actions and values. It also reduces the chances that the benefits and their conditions of possibility will be distributed evenly.

      2. Process of individual perception

      In general, these are values ​​based a priori on the association of a person or a group of people with a material or immaterial benefit. Overestimation of parameters is common, 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 others.

      Individual perception is influenced by the decision-making process and ends up justifying the distribution of benefits among the “best”.

      Among other things, the Matthew effect links profit distribution decisions to a social prestige attributed a priori to certain people or groups of people. the same the concept made it possible to reflect on the gaps in social stratificationsThat is, how the above affects the reduction in profits of those who do not correspond to certain values ​​(eg prestige).

      Inequalities in the sociology of science

      The Matthew effect was used by American sociologist Robert Merton in the 1960s to explain how we give credit for scientific research to a single person, although more people participated in a greater proportion.

      In other words, it served to explain how scientific genius is attributed to some people and not to others. And how, from there, certain possibilities of action and production of knowledge 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 1990s, a group of researchers selected around fifty scientific articlesThey changed the title and name (by an unknown researcher) and sent them for publication in the same journals where they were originally published. Almost all of them 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 ​​like prestige. In the words of the Argentinian epistemologist: “If a Nobel laureate says a heckle, it seems in every newspaper, but a dark researcher has a stroke of genius, the public does not know” (Bunge, 2002, p . 1).

      Thus, the Matthew effect is one who contributes to the social stratification of scientific communities, Which may also be visible in other environments. For example, in the same context, the term Matilda effect has been used to analyze the social and sexual stratification of science.

      Bibliographical references:

      • Jiménez Rodríguez, J. (2009). The Matthew effect: a psychological concept. 30 (2): 145-154.
      • Bunge, M. (2002). The Saint-Matthew effect. Polis, Latin American magazine [En línea]. Published November 26, 2012, accessed July 2, 2018. Available at

      Leave a Comment