“Field experiments of success-breeds-success dynamics”, (2014-05-13):
Social scientists have long debated why similar individuals often experience drastically different degrees of success. Some scholars have suggested such inequality merely reflects hard-to-observe personal differences in ability. Others have proposed that one fortunate success may trigger another, thus producing arbitrary differentiation. We conducted randomized experiments through intervention in live social systems to test for success-breeds-success dynamics. Results show that different kinds of success (money, quality ratings, awards, and endorsements) when bestowed upon arbitrarily selected recipients all produced statistically-significant improvements in subsequent rates of success as compared with the control group of nonrecipients. However, greater amounts of initial success failed to produce much greater subsequent success, suggesting limits to the distortionary effects of social feedback.
Seemingly similar individuals often experience drastically different success trajectories, with some repeatedly failing and others consistently succeeding. One explanation is preexisting variability along unobserved fitness dimensions that is revealed gradually through differential achievement. Alternatively, positive feedback operating on arbitrary initial advantages may increasingly set apart winners from losers, producing runaway inequality. To identify social feedback in human reward systems, we conducted randomized experiments by intervening in live social environments across the domains of funding, status, endorsement, and reputation. [Kickstarter/Wikipedia/Change.org/Epinions] In each system we consistently found that early success bestowed upon arbitrarily selected recipients produced statistically-significant improvements in subsequent rates of success compared with the control group of nonrecipients. However, success exhibited decreasing marginal returns, with larger initial advantages failing to produce much further differentiation. These findings suggest a lesser degree of vulnerability of reward systems to incidental or fabricated advantages and a more modest role for cumulative advantage in the explanation of social inequality than previously thought.