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The Mathew Effect

It seems that everywhere one looks, there is an implicit bias lurking behind the scenes.   While recently, it was the birthday paradox, this week it is the implicit bias we have regarding status.

In an article in the Science and Technology section of The Economist (September 14, 2022) entitled, An influential academic safeguard is distorted by status bias, the staff writers discuss the effect  that status has on peer review of articles. As one might suspect, it seems that someone who is unknown with a great idea “… but without an already stellar reputation, might struggle to get their foot in the door.” (Id.)

Known as the Matthew Effect, it is named after “…the biblical parable of the talents in the Gospel of Matthew which states that “to everyone who has, will more be given.”” (Id.)

In a recent study, researchers at the University of Innsbruck, in Austria worked with Vernon Smith, an experimental economist at Chapman University in California who also won the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences.  Dr. Smith had just completed a research project on financial and market data with Sabiou Inoua, a then PhD student at Chapman University.

They were ready to submit their paper for publication. They approached the editors at the Journal of Behavioural and Experimental Finance with their plan. They would submit their paper for peer review under three different circumstances; with no name attached; with only Dr. Smith’s name as the author; and with only Sabiou Inoua’s name as the author.

More than 3,300 potential reviewers were asked if they would take the time to assess the draft research paper based on a short abstract that listed either no author or one or the other as author.

More than 500 potential reviewers agreed. What happened was not surprising:

…When they thought it was Mr. Inoua’s work alone, 65% of reviewers voted to reject it. That is almost three times as many as the 23% of reviewers who rejected the same paper when it carried only Dr Smith’s name.

But it was also a significantly higher rejection rate than the 48% who spurned the paper when it was completely anonymous. Not only did Dr Smith’s eminence boost his numbers, but the newbie status of Mr. Inoua counted against him.  (Id.)

While the way to deal with this bias may be to remove the names, this is not always possible given the fact that many research papers are circulated on the internet before being formally submitted for peer review. (Id.)

As of the publication of this article in The Economist, the research paper still had not been published as the authors needed to respond to the more than 500 comments they received as part of the peer review experiment. (Id.)

This status bias got me thinking about mediators. Does the “stellar” status and reputation of a particular mediator have an unconscious effect on the parties who use her? Because of this Matthew effect, do the parties approach mediation more willing to settle, more agreeable to collaborating and more amenable to finding a compromise?   Do the parties walk into the mediation with high expectations of settling based on the stellar reputation and status of the mediator?

And in contrast, like the Ph.D. student Mr. Inoua, if the parties use an “unknown” mediator, do they have lower expectations about everything: about settling, about collaboration, about finding a compromise?

The next time you attend a mediation, stop and ask yourself if there is a bit of status bias going on regarding the mediator being used  and if as a result, you have certain preconceptions and expectations.  No doubt, you will be surprised at the answers your soul-searching reveals.

… Just something to think about.


Phyllis Pollack

Phyllis Pollack with PGP Mediation uses a facilitative, interest-based approach. Her preferred mediation style is facilitative in the belief that the best and most durable resolutions are those achieved by the parties themselves. The parties generally know the business issues and priorities, personalities and obstacles to a successful resolution as… MORE

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