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Rich Get Richer, Success Breeds Success – Empirical Studies

Why are certain people so successful? Why do some of our peers do well, and some do worse? In this article, the idea that early initial success subsequently causes more success (success breeds success) is analyzed in field experiments. The authors ultimately come to the conclusion that successes bestowed on arbitrarily selected individuals produced increased rates of success compared to individuals that did not receive successes. Here, individual can mean a person, a donation page, etc, and success came in the form of getting closer to an end goal (raising funds, awards for writing a web page, etc.).

This work is very related to the rich get richer scheme discussed in lecture. In the rich get richer phenomenon example discussed, people or webpages that have many connections, are more likely to come up in conversations or searches, resulting in a further number of connections and redirects. Similarly here, the hypothesis tested, and ultimately proven, is that success, the analog to wealth, causes more success.

Some of the studies include, a fundraising site, and, a site for petitions. Studies showed that on kickstarter, when fundraising campaigns that all had 0 donations at the end of 24 days were given varying numbers of small, separate donations, campaigns given more small donations were more likely to get another donation before their fundraising campaign ended. The authors controlled for social media presence and visibility of donation so as to enforce further successes in the form of donations as a result of the rich get richer effect. Similarly, in the study, petitions were arbitrarily chosen to get 12 additional signatures, or no signatures. Petitions with the 12 signatures were more likely to get more signatures. In these studies, we can see basis in information cascades, as more signatures or donations might convince an individual that a cause is worthy. This is also characteristic of the rich get richer phenomenon.

As seen in these simple real world studies, the positive feedback reinforcements cause little success to be amplified. It also shows that positive reinforcement can be initiated rather easily. The study further showed that this success breeds success phenomenon extends to all “success factors,” namely  financial gain, endorsement, social status, and social support. Interestingly, the study also observed that the effects of initial success do eventually saturate, limiting the capability of success manipulation. In the the kickstarter study, the increase in subsequent donations was most significant between zero donations given and one donation given, and less pronounced between one and four donations given. This is an interesting expansion on the rich get richer phenomenon that warrants further study.


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November 2019