What is the "Matthew effect" in Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell?

What is the "Matthew effect" in Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The term "Matthew effect" was named for the Gospel of Matthew 25:29, which states:

For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath.

The term was invented by sociologist Robert...

Unlock
This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Start your 48-Hour Free Trial

The term "Matthew effect" was named for the Gospel of Matthew 25:29, which states:

For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath.

The term was invented by sociologist Robert K. Merton in 1968 and most recently popularized in Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell.

The first chapter of Outliers describes how the Matthew effect contributes to the creation of "outliers." It describes several ways in which initial advantages multiply over lives and careers.

One type of advantage Merton discusses has to do with family circumstances. Young people from wealthy and well-educated families start with many advantages in life which act synergistically. For example, children of wealthy parents live in neighborhoods that can raise higher property taxes to support good schools. They have greater cultural capital and networking opportunities. Gladwell goes on to discuss these in later chapters, but in his first chapter focuses on birth dates.

Gladwell points out that children born early in the year will be bigger and stronger on average than the slightly younger children born later in the year. This means that they are more likely to get into sports teams, will get better coaching, and will have more opportunities to play at an advanced level for their age. This leads to the anomaly the people with certain birth months are more highly represented in professional hockey.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The "Matthew Effect" comes from the Gospel of Matthew and is sociologist Robert Merton's reformulation of the idea that those who are fortunate in having wealth will go on to have more wealth, while those who have little will have everything taken away. Gladwell uses this concept to describe the phenomenon by which those who start with advantages in life are given more advantages. 

Gladwell uses several examples to illustrate the Matthew Effect. Rich people, already wealthy, are given tax breaks. Children who are already academically gifted at a young age are given more coaching and attention from teachers, so they become even more talented. In chapter 1 of his book, he uses the example of children who are born right after the cut-off date for youth hockey. As these children are usually bigger and more mature than others in their age cohort, they are able to get onto youth leagues and thereby get even more skills and coaching. In our society, advantages beget advantages, and those who are not advantaged do not have the opportunities to improve. 

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The "Matthew effect" alludes to one of Jesus's parables in the gospel of Matthew. In the parable, Jesus says that to him that has, more will be given. But, Gladwell says, you can't just bury your talent: you have to use it. Success takes work. 

In Part I, Gladwell argues that slight advantages can have a disproportionate effect on helping people to pull away from the pack and become extra successful. In Part II, he discusses the extraordinary impact of one's culture on achievement. Success is not the result of being born with remarkable talent but the effect of having had the good luck to arrive in a culture that values and teaches virtues such as hard work and patience. The "Matthew effect" may start with being born with an advantage, however tenuous, but it ends with adding to it "10,000 hours of grinding."

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

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.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team