Does success breed success? It’s a pressing question in an era where the economic gap between the richest 1% of the population and the other 99% has been growing for years. Now scientists cruising the interwebs have found that a little initial success that’s not based on merit really can create a positive feedback mechanism, widening the disparity between those who do and don’t get the early win.
The findings, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, show that a little nudge goes a long way – though there are limits to the effect.
The international team of researchers ran a real-world experiment on a wide variety of efforts, including fundraising drives, political causes and product reviews. They did it in an arena in which they could easily introduce a “success” into a system and track its potential effects: the Web, specifically the websites Kickstarter, Epinions.com, Wikipedia and Change.org.
The scientists sampled 200 unfunded Kickstarter campaigns and made a donation to 100 of them, to see if those who got the initial money did better than those who didn’t. They took 305 new, unrated product reviews at Epinions.com and gave some of them a “very helpful” rating. They sampled 521 top-rated editors at Wikipedia and gave a portion of them an award for their work. They looked at 200 early campaigns on Change.org and gave 100 of them a dozen signatures each. Then they watched what happened with those that received the early initial success compared with those that did not.
In all four cases, those that received the initial success – the donation, the high rating, the award or the signatures — ended up more successful as a group than did those that didn’t experience the same early success.
“Despite qualitative differences in the nature of success across the four different reward systems,” the study authors wrote, “an early advantage consistently drives a sustained difference between individuals with equal initial likelihood of success.”
So would giving an effort an even bigger reward early on lead to even greater success down the road? To test the idea, the researchers gave out different amounts of "success" to see whether more was better.
On Kickstarter, they gave some campaigns 1% of the funding goal, and they gave others a total of 4% from four donors. On Epinions.com, they gave some reviewers one “very helpful” rating and they gave other reviewers four “very helpful” ratings.
The results showed that piling on the early success didn’t really help all that much, the authors wrote. For example, just 32% of those unfunded Kickstarter campaigns to which the scientists didn’t give money ended up attracting later funding. A full 74% of the Kickstarter campaigns to which the researchers gave 1% ended up getting funding down the road. But if the researchers gave 4% of the funding goal, the chances of later funding rose only moderately, to 87%.
So long-term success can be manipulated a little bit, if the tweak happens at the right time – at the beginning of the effort.
But on the whole, “cumulative advantage alone may not be able to generate the extreme kinds of runaway inequality that so commonly are attributed to it,” the authors wrote. “The vulnerability of meritocracies to biases from success-breeds-success effects thus may be more limited than generally assumed.”
And it could be useful guidance for philanthropies, they point out – they’d probably get more bang for their buck by parceling out funding to “underappreciated projects” rather than piling gobs of money onto already-successful ventures.