What is the "Matthew effect" in Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell?
The term “Matthew effect” is taken from the Bible verse Matthew 25:29. It reads
For 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.
The idea of the Matthew effect in Gladwell’s book is that there are feedback loops in many aspects of our society that make it so that people who have a given advantage will be able to use that advantage to gain even more advantages over their peers. They will be the people who have and are given more.
In Chapter 1 of Outliers, Gladwell focuses on the way in which people who are born early in the year have advantages in certain areas over those born later. He discusses the fact that professional hockey players are disproportionately born early in the year. He says that this is because they are the oldest children in their youth hockey leagues. They will be bigger, stronger, and better-coordinated than those born later in the year. As a result, they will get more attention, more coaching, more reinforcement, and more self-confidence. All of this means that they will take an advantage that they got at random and will use that (not necessarily intentionally) to gain even more advantages.
The reason that Gladwell discusses this is to show us that things that we think of as personal achievements (like reaching the NHL in hockey) can really be due to accidents of our birth.