How would you help someone who is struggling in school?
Imagine you meet a high school student. The person doesn’t seem particularly enthused about school or learning in general. They struggle with understanding concepts in their classes, and their friends also don’t care much for school.
The sad truth is that a student’s fate is set in stone as early as first grade.
In a research paper by Keith Stanovich, he found that students who perform well early on in school tend to perform well later on, while lower ranked students get worse as time goes on. In his work, he pinpointed the first grade as a pivotal time in a child’s education.
The first grade is crucial because there’s a step in development that sets the tone for the rest of a child’s education. During this time, children start learning to read words. This is important because education follows a specific sequence: we first learn to read, and then we read to learn.
Children who struggle to read during the first grade then go on to perform poorly in all their subjects. They get exposed to fewer words, which exposes them to less reading. When they fall behind other children in reading, the reading material is too difficult for their comprehension.
When reading proves too difficult, the student dislikes reading and does it less. Meanwhile, a student who can read enjoys the process and continues reading.
Their reading habits also played into their peer selection. Students who disliked reading would spend time with other students who disliked reading, while those who liked reading spent time with peers that also liked reading. Their habits would rub off on one another and further their habits.
Eventually, those students who disliked reading would grow to dislike learning. By the time fifth grade came around, students were expected to know how to read to learn. The students who still struggled to read fell further behind. All because they started struggling at age six.
This phenomenon is known as the Matthew Effect.
Widening the Gap
The quote in the book of Matthew states, “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” (Matthew 25:29).
The term “The Matthew Effect” was coined by sociologist Robert Merton when he noticed that eminent scientists are often given more recognition than unknown researchers for similar work. It’s used to describe cases where those with an early abundance of resources tend to accumulate more over time than those who started off with less. This pattern was found to exist not only in the sciences, but other fields where resources are limited.
Another interesting example is internet memes. There are thousands of memes across the web. But the internet is competitive, and our attention is limited. Eventually, only a small fraction of memes win out and get widely shared across networks, leaving the vast majority somewhere far below.
Similar to the Matthew Effect is the old adage, “success breeds success”. Researchers decided to find out whether this adage held true and to what extent. They created four scenarios where resources or “successes” were allocated to individuals randomly.
In the first scenario, funding was provided to proposed ventures. In the second, awards were given to volunteers. In the third, endorsements were given to product reviews, and in the final scenario, signatures of support were given to social or political campaigns.
They found that in each scenario, early success led to more successes, regardless of merit. Even if the individual or group wasn’t necessarily more talented than others, being given that initial boost was enough to help them later on. Overall, individuals given an early advantage were 9 to 31 percent more likely than those without the advantage to receive follow-up support, such as funding, awards, endorsements, and signatures of support.
The “winner-take-all” effect is a natural byproduct of societies, organizations, and places where competition is high and resources are scarce. A small advantage, even if it isn’t earned, can snowball into a massive advantage that’s difficult to overcome.
Unfortunately, this phenomenon can have harmful, if not devastating effects on those who have progressively less. They fall so far behind that they don’t see the point in continuing further and trying, so they drop out of the race. Meanwhile, a select few take the lion’s share.
Excelling in Spite of the Matthew Effect
Stanovich’s research paper opens with the line, “The Matthew Effects are not only about the progressive decline of slow starters but also about the widening gap between slow starters and fast starters.”
The Matthew Effect reveals a cold hard truth: an early advantage leads to advantages later on, even if that early advantage wasn’t gained through merit. The disadvantaged become more disadvantaged over time.
But it isn’t all doom and gloom. Many people born without initial advantages go on to excel. Doing poorly in school does not mean doing poorly for the rest of your life. Sometimes the rules change, and your advantages (and disadvantages) shift as well.
The Matthew Effect provides some insight into how you can give yourself a head-start and become successful. Rather than fighting against it, you can use the rule of accumulated advantage to help yourself and those around you. Here are a few ways:
1. Don’t be afraid to reach out for help.
According to a study, your first job out of college is critical because it sets you on a career trajectory that is difficult to change. Among graduates who had a good job right after graduating, 49 percent of them earn at least $60,000 six to seven years later. Amongst graduates who took over a year to find a good job after graduating, only 18 percent earn at least $60,000 six to seven years later.
Most of us recognize when we’re in need of help. We’re struggling, trying different things, and yet, we’re going nowhere. But even though we’re stuck, we rather stew in the same situation than ask for help.
It can be seen as embarrassing to ask for help. There’s a notion that we should be able to handle things on our own rather than approach someone for help or advice. We feel like we should be able to figure things out, even if we’ve never been put in a situation before.
But going to someone familiar or reaching out to someone who was in a similar situation can give you that boost you need. Putting yourself in a strong position early on is important because it sets you up for better opportunities later. Getting help from someone to reach a destination is better than trying on your own and never reaching anywhere.
2. Intervene early.
Early invention applies not only for you, but for helping others. In the research on children and reading, Stanovich found that if poor readers in first grade were identified, they could be helped. This assistance helped children who were initially struggling to catch up and eventually not fall behind on all their other subjects.
A small issue may not seem to be cause for alarm at first. But when left undetected, a small problem can snowball into a big problem. Big problems wreak havoc and can sometimes cause irreversible damage.
When you identify a small issue early on, think about the potential repercussions if it were to be left unattended. It’s much easier to resolve and limit the damage when a problem is small. Pay attention to those warning signs.
3. Breed your own success.
People who have initial funding, awards, endorsements, or signatures of support are more likely to receive more than those without. We tend to follow other people’s actions as a reference point for what we should do. There’s safety in numbers, after all.
You can use this knowledge to your advantage. To win others’ trust, showcase your past achievements and the support you’ve received. If you have won an award or received backing from someplace notable, don’t hesitate to mention it. These credibility markers increase people’s confidence in your ability.
Success is More Than Merit
When you’re proven and vetted by others, people are more likely to support your cause. Remember that success is not simply about merit, but about putting your best foot forward and giving yourself an advantage.
The Matthew Effect may seem unfair at first. But when you understand the nature of how things work and how to make the most of a situation, you can create that necessary propulsion to drive yourself and others around you forward.
Melissa Chu writes about creating great work and successful habits at JumpstartYourDreamLife.com. You can grab the guide How to Get Anything You Want.