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On Privilege and Luck, or Why Success Breeds Success

Ask successful people about the secrets of their success, and you’ll probably answers like passion, hard work, skill, focus, and having great ideas. Very few people, if any, would reply with “privilege and luck”. We’re often blind to these factors and they make for less inspiring stories. But time and again, we see that the advantages that give us a head-start and the accidents that ease our path can make or break a career.

In 1968, sociologist Robert Merton noted that in several areas of science, advantage accumulates. Well-known scientists, for example, are more likely to get further recognition than equally productive peers of lesser renown. Merton called this the Matthew effect after a biblical verse that says “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.”

Merton focused on science but the Matthew effect pervades every area of our society, from bestseller lists to sports leagues. Several experiments have shown that small, random, initial advantages can spiral into huge ones. Success can breed success, and inequality breeds more inequality. Haves have more. Have-nots continue having not.

The latest example comes from Arnout van de Rijt at the State University of New York. His team went to four well-known websites and randomly distributed small bursts of success.

On Kickstarter, where people raise money for specific projects, they picked 100 out of 200 projects and donated a small proportion of their funding goal. On Epinions, where users review products and are paid based on the quality of their appraisals, they gave a “very helpful” rating to some new, unrated reviews. On Wikipedia, where dedicated editors can get status awards to honour their commitment, the team gave awards to a random subset of the most productive editors. And on Change.org, where people call for signatures to support their campaigns, the team gave a dozen signatures to 100 out of 200 early-stage campaigns.

In each case, success came in a different form: money; endorsement; social status; and expressions of support. But these small initial gains always snowballed into significant later ones.

In all four experiments, the early beneficiaries were all significantly more likely to be even more successful. For example, in the Kickstarter study, 70 percent of the projects that got a kickstart went on to attract more funding, while just 39 percent of the unchosen projects did. The lucky projects also attracted more than twice the number of later donations.

Credit: van de Rijt et al, 2014.
Credit: van de Rijt et al, 2014.

These effects lasted for a long time. Two weeks after the experiment, the endorsed reviews on Epinions still had more positive ratings than the others. Three months later, and the lucky Wikipedia editors still had more awards than their equally productive peers.

Van de Rijt’s study also showed that initial bits of success suffer from diminishing returns. They repeated the Kickstarter study but this time, they made either one donation or four, all at the same amounts. They found that 32 percent of the projects with no donors attracted more funding, compared to 74 percent of those with one donor, and 87 percent of those with four. So, a bit of initial success leads to more success, but lots of initial success doesn’t necessarily lead to much more success.

They found the same thing in Epinions. They could boost a reviewer’s eventual standing by giving them one very helpful rating, but giving them four such ratings didn’t do a lot more. A little snowball will careen down the slope into a big one, but a huge snowball won’t create a gigantic one. What matters is that someone kicked off a snowball at all.

Note: the experiments were followed for different times, so the x-axis is normalised. Credit: van de Rijt et al, 2014.
Note: the experiments were followed for different times, so the x-axis is normalised. Credit: van de Rijt et al, 2014.

If the team is right, this means that it would be very hard to exploit the spiralling nature of success through brute force. As they say, “the susceptibility of reward systems to deliberate manipulation may be restricted mostly to interventions favouring those individuals who cannot muster any initial success otherwise”. That might be friends telling each other about an unknown band, or a charity offering jumpstarting loans to underappreciated projects—something to get the ball rolling.

But Duncan Watts, who studies social networks at Microsoft Research, says that these results may not generalise to bigger issues, like careers, societal trends or financial bubbles. “Clearly it’s impractical and unethical to randomly assign people to receive early career advantages, or randomly publish negative news about the housing market, so it’s going to be tricky to get experimental evidence in these systems,” he says. “That’s why the authors have chosen to study the systems they have.  But it’s important to remember that these are all rather simple and special compared to the systems that we really care about.”

Still, the results from van der Rijt’s study are clear: despite their equal merit, some projects or people came to stand above the others, simply because of a small and arbitrarily assigned advantage that they were totally blind to. In other words: privilege and luck.

A skeptic might argue that this effect is a good thing. In this study, advantages were bestowed randomly but in the real world, perhaps they are offered on merit, so that small differences in quality are gradually amplified. But we rarely get the chance to assess merit in a systematic way. No one goes through all of Kickstarter to evaluate every project they see. No one looks at every book in the store before deciding which one to buy.

That is not to say that skill, passion and hard work don’t matter. They clearly do, but studies like this tell us that we can’t assume that success is down to the qualities that emblazon motivational posters, or that people without success somehow lack these qualities.

Reference: Van der Rijt, Kang, Restivo & Patil. 2014. Field experiments of success-breeds-success dynamics. PNAS. http://dx.doi.org/10.1073/pnas.131683611

14 thoughts on “On Privilege and Luck, or Why Success Breeds Success

  1. Which seems to establish pretty firmly that if you want a model of the behaviour of people on the internet you need look no further than the nearest flock of sheep.

  2. Accepting for a moment that this effect scales into the larger parts of our lives, because we live in an *apparent* meritocracy, we feel more righteous in judging the failures of others.

    This is an interesting take then:

    It’s a symptom of our greater faith in meritocracy that it’s largely become impossible to explain away our failures as the result of ‘bad luck.’ While it is granted that luck maintains a theoretical role in shaping the course of our careers, the evaluation of people proceeds, in practical terms, as if they could fairly be held responsible for their biographies. It would seem unduly (and even suspiciously) modest to ascribe a victory to ‘good luck’ and, more importantly in this context, pitiable to blame defeat on the opposite. Winners make their own luck, insists the modern mantra: which would, for example, have puzzled the ancient Roman worshippers of the Goddess of Fortune. It is alarming enough to have to depend for our status on contingent elements. It is harder yet to live in a world so imbued with notions of rational control that it has largely dismissed ‘bad luck’ as a credible explanation for defeat.


  3. The people with the most power, wealth, and repute in any community are also the people who have the most say in its system of beliefs. It is in their interest, and is also most gratifying to them, to promote the belief that power, wealth and repute come to them because of some intrinsic, unique quality of those who possess them, rather than by chance (or force, or fraud) although the latter set of causes are most often the case. Thus a scientific result showing that chance has a large influence on outcomes will be held to be very surprising — every time it’s demonstrated. And then it will be forgotten, since it is so at odds with the prevailing framework of belief.

  4. The study results could also be explained by a game theory signaling model. If the kickstarter already has donors, it is a signal that others consider it a worthy project and that it is thus worth investing in. The signal can reinforce the donor’s existing prejudice, or it can just signal that others find this a good project, thus the estimated value of the project to the donor is increased.

  5. Being the first one to sign a petition, to invest in a project, or cross the ocean. We call them risk takers, daredevils. People are comfortable sheeple and follow the herd. Listen to whatever music other people listen to, watch videos or tv series that other people watches, ……. Break the ice, create a hype, and more will follow.

  6. Duncan Watt’s quote was off mark. We do the experiment of assigning early rewards randomly all the time (from the how we were feeling when we read the job application to whether we wanted a clarinet player or a saxophone player in our orchestra when making admissions decisions). The only reason it would be “unethical” to randomly assign “luck” (say, in the form of an early internship, or admission to a school, or a job, or a grant) is the presumption of meritocracy (and not these other factors) playing the controlling roll in outcomes. If one lets go of that bias, it would be very reasonable to do the experiment, and see how significantly “luck” plays a role in outcomes.

  7. In my opinion you can have a bit of help by luck but if you aren’t smart, inventive, focused, hard-worker, etc… it is unlikely that you will become successful and capitalize on your luck. The idea that meritocracy doesn’t exist is a way for mediocre people to not admit their mediocrity blaming “society, misfortune”, etc… instead of themselves.

  8. This actually supports a small observation I made years ago when I used to visit NYC regularly. There were often interesting people doing street performances of various kinds in the subway, but they were invariably ignored. Being an out-of-towner, I would invariably stop to watch and kick in a buck to the collection, and again invariably, I noticed that once I was obviously watching and reacting, others, maybe a couple, maybe a half-dozen or more, would draw up and join the crowd. Whether any of them also contributed, I didn’t notice, but I did decide that there’s something in many of us that needs a seed crystal to trigger.

  9. I once said to a fellow amateur baseball player “I’d rather be lucky than good.” He agreed and added “the harder I work, the luckier I get.”

  10. Essentially, the experimenters did something completely unmeritocratic, which was to give rewards at random. And then they were surprised that the system ended up being unmeritocratic?

    What this shows is that the system isn’t so intelligent that it self-corrects for unmeritocratic actions that are deliberately inserted into it. It doesn’t show that each of these systems isn’t meritocratic to begin with.

    This also shows that social proof is at work, and social proof is quite rational.

  11. The result explains why buskers throw some of their own money into the hat when they start a session. Yes, I’ve seen them do that, and it indicates they understand the process, and probably pass the tip along to others, too.

  12. It just confirms what ive always known guys like Donald Trump are rich because of the priviledges they received early in life and not because they are all that.

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