The Matthew Effect and Mark Effect

I am reading “Top Dog” the latest book by Po Bronson, about competition.

An interesting take-away was his description of two effects on competition, one called the Matthew Effect and the other called the Mark Effect, both named after their respective books in the Gospel.

The Matthew Effect refers to Matthew 13:12:

“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.”

This has to do with the notion that winners have a cumulative advantage. Early childhood students who do well get better schools and better teachers, which gives them an advantage when competing with later students.

The Mark Effect refers to Mark 10:31:

“But many who are first will be last, and the last first.”

This has to do with the idea that resources should be re-allocated – that those who have more should be given fewer so that those without can catch up (to counter the Matthew Effect).

What would be interesting is to understand how pervasive the Matthew Effect is and, can someone who has not had the advantages of it, be able to catch up.

I have been thinking about this in the context of education for Rachel. The book talks about the importance of certain types of healthy competition. In reflecting on my own experience, I realize that there was unhealthy competition from Mike. He exhibits all of the unhealthy aspects of competing in things that don’t matter, needing to verbally or physically hinder the comeptitor (me) rather than improving the game, and basically not thriving in it. He also illustrated that he could not operate in teams: the only sport he was interested in was tennis and cross-country running, neither of which really involve any kind of real team sportsmanship.

My goal is to enable the kids on how to properly deal with people like that. Part of it is providing education and tools: my mom did the opposite by, at best, ignoring the situation and worst, by blessing it as acceptable.

The book “Top Dog” also highlighted the importance of healthy peer competition to increase performance: when people are with peers (versus with those who are more successful or less successful at the competition at hand), performance can increase. This effect also depends upon closeness which is both physical and psychological. Closeness comes when the number of competing peers is not large (as shown by the higher SAT scores for those living in small cities).

The takeaways for me are that a good classroom setting should have:

  • small numbers of students with similar capabilities and skills
  • healthy self-concepts of competition (there is no place for those without a healthy concept, the barriers to change, as we saw with Mike, are much too high – there are deeper problems at work)
  • in doing so, start the flywheel of the Matthew Effect

Naturally, this depends on one’s personality: apparently, some personalities will wither in the face of competition, and I want to understand how to both identify this and, hopefully, how to shape that person for healthy competition because the reality is, there will be competition in the world.