Influence 6 min read

Reversing the Matthew Effect

It’s easier for those who already have wealth and power to gain more of the same than for those who have nothing. But it’s possible to reverse this effect and make it work to your advantage, even if you are starting from zero.
“For whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance: but whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken away even that he hath.” —Matthew 13:12

In the Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz, survival depended not only on physical endurance, but the appearance of endurance.

The kapos—camp leaders who were themselves prisoners—held a position of power that allowed them to distribute valuable resources like food and less laborious jobs. But such things didn’t go to those who needed them most. No, quite the opposite: they went to those who needed them least.

The reason for that is simple. Since the weak and the sick were deemed already dead, viewed through the brutal, realist lens of the camp, any resource given to them was considered a waste. So instead of helping the weak, the kapos surrounded themselves with the healthy and the strong, supporting their stamina by sharing what they could with them, while those who were feeble and unwell were pushed down even further by being denied the necessities of life.

For whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance: but whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken away even that he hath. Matthew 13:12

And yet, those with enough willpower found ways to crawl out of the abyss. In his famous account of his time at Auschwitz1, Primo Levi describes one such tenacious individual he calls Alfred L., who was a successful engineer and factory director before his imprisonment by the Nazis. Alfred L. understood the principle mentioned above, and exploited it to make it work for him, even though he was stripped of everything when he entered the camp.

Instead of focusing on survival alone, which was hard enough, L. also focused on his appearance. He traded his bread for soap, which he used not only to wash his face and hands, but also his shirt, which he had to put back on while it was still wet, in darkness.

L. knew that the step was short from being judged powerful to effectively becoming so, and that everywhere, and especially in the midst of the general levelling of the Lager, a respectable appearance is the best guarantee of being respected.

Among other things he did was to take the first place in the soup line—thereby having to suffer the most liquid and therefore the least nourishing portion—for the sake of getting noticed by the barrack leader.

His sacrifices and perseverance paid off. When an opportunity came to get a much less arduous job with a chemical team, L. “needed no more than his spruce suit and his emaciated and shaved face in the midst of the flock of his sordid and slovenly colleagues.”

The Matthew Effect

Coined by Robert K. Merton, the Matthew Effect, named after the Parable of the Talents, describes the adage that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. In his research, Merton found that scientists who were more famous received disproportionately more credit for work that was similar in nature to those who were less known. While Merton focused on academia, this effect can be seen in many cases where there is some kind of distribution of resources.

For example, the richer you are, the easier it is to get a loan. It is easier for a published author to get another book deal than for a new author to make a debut. The more experience you have, the easier it is to get hired. In other words: the less you need something, the easier it is to obtain, and vice versa.

However, as Levi’s story of Alfred L. demonstrates, it is possible to overcome this effect when seeking to influence others. This can be done by external means, via appearance, as well as internally, by shifting one’s mindset.

The appearance of authority

At the outbreak of the American Revolutionary War, the Continental Congress assembled to select a general to lead their army. George Washington arrived dressed in military uniform. In his biography of Washington, Ron Chernow writes:

As if to signal his availability for military duty and with an instinctive sense of theater, he came clad in the blue and buff uniform of the Fairfax militia … As Benjamin Rush stated, ‘He has so much martial dignity in his deportment that you would distinguish him to be a general and a soldier from among ten thousand people.’

While Washington did have some military experience, it was his military uniform that made him stand out from the other participants, who were dressed in civilian clothes. He did not even have to ask. In Washington’s own words, he “did not solicit command, but accepted it after much entreaty.”

Studies confirm the psychological effect of clothing. In his famous book Influence, Robert Cialdini tells of two experiments. The first involved a man stopping pedestrians, pointing to someone standing by a parking meter, and saying to them: “You see that guy over there by the meter? He’s over-parked but doesn’t have any change. Give him a dime!” When the requester was dressed as a guard, almost everyone complied, but less than half did so when he was dressed normally.

Another experiment involved a man crossing the street against the traffic light. The researchers wanted to see how many other pedestrians would follow him. What they discovered was that three and a half times more people followed the man when he was dressed in a business suit than when he wore a work shirt and trousers.

Similarly, it’s possible to use intangible symbols of expertise to fashion an image of authority. In The 4-Hour Workweek, Tim Ferriss explains how expert status can be created in less than 4 weeks by gathering what he calls “credibility indicators.” These steps involve a process of joining trade organizations, giving a seminar at a university, giving further seminars at larger companies for free (citing previous credibility indicators to get in) and writing articles for trade magazines. The final step is to use these indicators to give quotes to journalists looking for opinions on a particular topic, which is done by joining sites that specialize in connecting journalists with experts.

An empowered state of mind

Jordan Belfort, the infamous broker depicted in the film The Wolf of Wall Street, created a system that turned an underperforming sales team into a stock selling machine—which he misused to run a penny-stock scam that led to his ending up in jail. Belfort lays out the details of his sales system in Way of the Wolf. One of the most important components of this system is state management, which harnesses the power of success through visualization.

Act as if you’re a wealthy man, rich already, and you will become rich. Act as if you have unmatched confidence, and people will have confidence in you. Act is if you have all the answers, and the answers will come to you. Jordan Belfort, Way of the Wolf

In the context of sales, before making a cold call a salesman should imagine that they are great at sales, and that they are already wealthy and successful. If done vividly enough, this visualization would put them into an empowered state, which makes it much easier for them to access their knowledge, communicate their points and close the sale than if they were in a disempowered state, i.e. if they focused on the fact that they had no experience, had doubt in their sales ability and were desperate for the sale.

Switching your mental state alters your level of confidence. In a disempowered state, a salesperson has low confidence in themselves, and their desperation automatically repels their potential customers. On the other hand, an empowered state makes one confident, calm and assured, which the potential customer can sense. It is as if the salesperson is doing them a favor by talking to them, which makes them want to know more.

The Matthew effect is an unfair fact of life, but it is not inevitable, and even if we have nothing, even if we are starting from zero, we can find creative ways to project strength and authority to the world, making the superficial biases work for us rather than against us.

  1. Primo Levi, If This Is a Man 

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