The Matthew Effect and taking the road less traveled


When was the last time you went against the grain and did something or went somewhere because it was the less popular thing to do? In a world that often urges conformity and follows an algorithmically generated path, there is something undeniably alluring about taking the road less traveled. This applies in both the real world and the virtual world. It’s a well-established fact that popularity breeds more popularity.

This has been the case throughout history, even before the Internet. This concept is called the “Matthew Effect” or the principle of accumulated advantage.  It is named after a verse from the Bible (Matthew 25:29). It suggests that those who are already successful or popular tend to receive even greater benefits and opportunities, while those who are less successful or popular struggle to catch up. Although the term is mostly applied to people, it’s also applicable to places and things. But why does the Matthew Effect happen?

Social Proof: People tend to rely on the behavior of others to determine what is popular or valuable. The more people see others engaging with and endorsing something, the more likely they are to perceive it as valuable or desirable. This creates a positive feedback loop, as the initial popularity attracts even more attention and engagement.

Bandwagon Effect: The bandwagon effect refers to the tendency for individuals to adopt certain behaviors or beliefs simply because others are doing so. It stems from the innate desire to fit in, be accepted, and avoid missing out on something deemed popular or trendy.

Network Effects: In the digital age, network effects from algorithms play a crucial role in the amplification of popularity. When something becomes popular, it can go “viral”. This virality creates a ripple effect, as more people share, discuss, and interact with the popular content or product. As the network grows, the reach and impact of the popular person, place, or thing expands.

Scarcity and Exclusivity: Popularity often creates a sense of scarcity or exclusivity. When someone or something becomes highly sought after or limited in availability, it increases its perceived value. The fear of missing out (FOMO) or the desire to be part of an exclusive group drives people to join in and contribute to the popularity. This creates a cycle where popularity feeds into the perception of scarcity, making the item or content even more coveted.

Social Influence and Conformity: Human beings are social creatures who seek validation and acceptance from their peers. Popular items or content often gain attention because influential individuals or groups endorse or promote them. People are more likely to conform to the opinions and behaviors of those they admire or respect.

Joe & Mary Catherine Domaleski explore the Southside Beltline trail back before it's developed. Photo/Joe Domaleski
Joe & Mary Catherine Domaleski take the road less traveled by exploring the Southside Beltline trail up in south Atlanta back before it’s developed in 2018. Photo/Joe Domaleski

I run a marketing company and can verify that the above well-known factors come into play when promoting something. So, why would I write an article about non-conformity if I’m a marketer? That’s a fair question. Have you ever read the famous poem by Robert Frost, “The Road Not Taken”? You should, but in the meantime, here’s why I think you should take the road less traveled.

  1. Experience new adventures: Choosing the road less traveled guarantees you an abundance of extraordinary experiences and unforgettable adventures. Whether it’s exploring uncharted destinations, trying out new restaurants, reading books from new authors, or embarking on unique hobbies, you’ll find yourself in situations that ignite your soul. These experiences not only create lasting memories but also enrich your life with stories worth sharing.
  2. Find Your Tribe: While following the crowd may provide a sense of belonging, the road less traveled leads you to your true tribe – individuals who share your passions, values, and vision. By embracing your individuality, you attract like-minded people who appreciate and support you for who you truly are. These meaningful connections offer a sense of belonging and support that goes beyond superficial conformity.
  3. Obtain fulfillment beyond the numbers: In a virtual world obsessed with likes, followers, and metrics, it is easy to lose sight of what truly brings us joy. By breaking away from the crowd and not succumbing to the pressure of liking posts simply for popularity’s sake, we free ourselves from the constraints of seeking external validation. Instead, we redirect our focus towards our own passions, hobbies, and relationships that genuinely bring us happiness and fulfillment.
  4. Expand your horizons: Choosing the road less traveled inherently involves stepping outside of your comfort zone. It challenges you to confront your fears, embrace uncertainty, and discover untapped potential within yourself. As you venture into uncharted territory, you develop resilience, adaptability, and an open mind. By pushing your boundaries, you acquire a wealth of new experiences, knowledge, and perspectives.
  5. Open up to creativity and innovation: The well-trodden path often leads to predictability and a lack of innovation. By deviating from the crowd, you open yourself up to new possibilities for creativity and originality. Necessity, as they say, is the mother of invention. When you choose the road less traveled, you’re forced to think outside the box, problem-solve, and explore unconventional ideas. You become a trailblazer, bringing fresh perspectives and inspiring others to break free from the status quo.
  6. Find your true self: When you choose to diverge from the masses and forge your own path, you open yourself up to a world of self-discovery. By not succumbing to societal expectations and pressures, you grant yourself the freedom to explore who you truly are. Unveiling your unique interests, passions, and talents becomes an exhilarating journey rather than an obligatory checklist. Embracing your individuality fosters a sense of authenticity and allows you to live a life aligned with your core values.

While the allure of conformity may be tempting, choosing the road less traveled is more fun. It allows you to embark on a journey of self-discovery, personal growth, creativity, and meaningful connections. The road less traveled promises an extraordinary life filled with adventure, fulfillment, and a sense of purpose. So, go ahead and try that brand new restaurant, explore less-used trails, listen to new music from lesser known artists, read from works by unknown authors, and promote worthy causes that don’t get a lot of attention. Don’t be a lemming. Avoid the temptation to mindlessly like and follow social media posts just because everyone else is. Seek the unique and stay weird. Dare to be different, embrace your individuality, and set forth on a path uniquely your own. Remember, the road less traveled is where the real magic happens.

[Joe Domaleski, a Fayette County resident for 25 years, is the owner of Country Fried Creative – an award-winning digital marketing agency located in Peachtree City. His company was the Fayette Chamber’s 2021 Small Business of the Year.  Joe is a husband, father of three grown children, and proud Army veteran.  He has an MBA from Georgia State University and enjoys sharing his perspectives drawing from thirty years of business leadership experience. ]