portrait of me

Kolja Pluemer

Solving problems with code.

Understanding Accumulative Advantage

Lessons from Broughton & Mills (1980)


So I heard of the concept of Accumulative Advantage a few times now and decided to see what it is all about. To this end I searched for a comprehensive paper - and I found one. It’s called Resource Inequality and Accumulative Advantage: Stratification in the Ministry and here is what i got from it:

  • Accumulative Advantage is a concept to explain success and how it arises.
  • The core idea is that successful (whatever that means in a given context) people get more resources (whatever that means; you get the idea) helping them become more successful.
  • So, we have a spiral!
  • Which of course means quite stark inequality after this process runs for some time: People starting out with just a little more are now very successful and have a ton of resources.
  • We might ask now: Is this fair? Is this damaging?
  • The idea arose from research on inequality in scientific recognition and is called the Matthew Effect.
  • However researching Accumulative Advantage has an inherent problem, as the authors point out:
    • You can (at least somewhat) see how “good” or “useful” or “competent” a scientist is from the outside. Publications, citations, applications of her work, etc.
    • Thus, it can never be clear whether successful scientists have so many resources because they are good at what they do, or if they are good at what they do because they got all these resources.
  • So the authors got creative and picked another group to research: Clergy!
Dinosaurs at a fancy dinner party

Is resource inequality inevitable in any organization?

  • Why?
    1. Clergy is structured in layers and has a kind of “promotion” system somewhat comparable to science or enterprise (called stratification)
    2. Pastors have a lot of different roles and jobs, and whether they are good at it is very hard to quantify.
    3. However the resources they have access to matter a lot: Cash for their church, size of their congregation, staff.
  • So now we have an interesting equation: “Competence” is not measurable (neither by the researchers nor by the people higher up allocating the resources to clergy or rather clergy parishes) and very measurable resources.
  • Meaning: If Accumulative Advantage still arises here, it is because of how stratification systems work and not because it is a meritocracy.
Sketched point cloud showing Gini's coefficient of concentration fairly steadily from 0.15 at 1 year since ordination to 0.32 at 30 years since ordination

Not a crazy correlation, but steady and consistent over all inequality measurements.

  • Not gonna lie, following the statistics here is quite the task: You have to understand synthetic cohort analysis, measures like Gini’s coefficient of distribution and US American clergy structure. I am…not really up to the task.
  • Apart from that: They do find a quite consistent rise of resource inequality dependent on nothing but how long a given clergyman has worked.
  • In other words: Older clergymen have way vaster differences in resource access compared each other than younger clergyman.
  • An important observation: This holds true for very different denominations, suggesting that belief systems, organizational philosophy or whatever you want to call it influence Accumulative Advantage very little.
  • Furthermore, this study supports the previously proposed idea that the main determinant for the speed of this process if how quickly resources are (re)allocated.

So yeah, that’s Accumulative Advantage in a nutshell (possibly a coconut). The authors mostly suggest giving this model of thinking a bit more attention and call for further research. Honestly, I agree. There is no proposed silver bullet, so let’s just use the idea of Accumulative Advantage a bit more and see where it fits: The workplace, friend groups, online game leaderboards, what else?

Thanks for reading! This post is part of my series of reading and summarizing papers, mostly relating to UX. I use a casual tone because that’s the most fun to me. That means my interpretation of a given paper may be off. Or incomplete. Or plain wrong. Always think for yourself, and please, don’t cite this in an academic context. Use the original article instead. Cheers!