Have You Ever?

You’re out shopping for new headphones. There are plenty of different brands being offered. Your attention is grabbed by one brand in particular though: the XBeats. Only a few of their headphones are left on the shelf. You’ve never heard of XBeats before but they’ve got a big sticker next to their price tag labelling them “Customer’s Number One Brand.” You decide to buy them. As the cashier scans the box, he remarks, “These things really are flying off the shelves! It’s lucky you grabbed one.” You feel satisfied with your purchase – XBeats had to have gotten popular for their good quality, right? Otherwise people wouldn’t buy them.

Here’s Why

This is a classic example of the bandwagon effect in action. The main influence on what brand of headphones you buy is what you perceive to be popular. Since it looks like everyone is buying the XBeats – evident from their limited stock, popularity sticker, and the cashier’s comment – you confidently choose to purchase them even though you have no concrete proof that you in particular will actually be satisfied with them.

The Bandwagon Effect

The bandwagon effect is the psychological phenomenon in which an individual does something because others, particularly a large group of others, are doing it. This action or behavior is done regardless of whether it aligns with the individual’s personal belief or even factual evidence.

The History

The term “bandwagon” refers to the wagon that carries a band during a parade, circus, or other event. It inspired the name of the cognitive bias during the nineteenth century. It is accredited to Dan Rice, a popular entertainer of the day, who campaigned across the country for presidential candidate Zachary Taylor. Dan Rice made his bandwagon a vital part of the campaign tactic, urging gatherers to “jump on the bandwagon” to show their support for Taylor. People attributed Taylor’s successful campaign to Dan Vice and his bandwagon, inspiring future politicians to hire their own bandwagons when they campaigned. By the twentieth century, the phrase “jump on the bandwagon” had morphed into a derogatory one used to describe persons going along with the majority even when it went against their personal principles. 

The bandwagon effect works because we are social creatures. We like to conform. If others are doing, even if it’s something as simple and nonsensical as tapping their feet or scratching their noses, we become more likely to perform that action too. If it feels like everyone is doing something, it becomes harder to be the contrarian. We desire to feel included. Furthermore, we want to be on the winning team or have the correct answer. The belief, “if everyone’s doing this, it must be correct”, works in favor of the bandwagon effect. When in the minority, people feel less confident about their decisions, even if they have facts that support their choices. The appeal of going along with the group is strong and compelling.

Why Care?

The bandwagon effect is commonly remarked upon and studied in the political and marketing fields. However, it plays a role in every area, even ones you might not expect like medical science and engineering, because people are involved in every field. Its all-encompassing nature is precisely why it’s labeled as dangerous.

Take for example the modern anti-vaccination trend. No verifiable, concrete evidence has been produced to prove that vaccines cause chronic illnesses. In fact, the study that propagated the idea that vaccines cause autism was completely discredited due to major procedural errors, undisclosed financial conflicts of interest, and ethical violations. The man who wrote and published the study even lost his medical license over it. Still, there’s a significant number of people who refuse to get vaccines or vaccinate their children because other parents and adults they know refuse to, and continue to spread that myth. They’re not getting off the bandwagon, even when facts show that they should, because it still seems like the bandwagon is full. 

It’s important to remember that the bandwagon effect works in both directions: it can convince you to do or not do something. If people begin to abandon a trend, others are more likely to as well. If you see others jumping off the bandwagon, you’re going to as well. 

Then again, just because something is popular doesn’t make it wrong. Sometimes the bandwagon is singing the praises of proper diet and exercise or treating fellow humans kindly. Popularity isn’t indicative of whether an action, philosophy or subject matter is good or bad. Therefore, it’s vital to do your own research. Investigate the bandwagon and use your critical thinking skills to see if it’s really a ride you want to get on. 

    Learn More

    1. Herpen, Erica van, Rik Pieters, and Marcel Zeelenberg. “When demand accelerates demand: Trailing the bandwagon.” Journal of Consumer Psychology, vol 19, issue 3, July 2009, pp. 302-312. Doi: 10.1016/j.jcps.2009.01.001.
    2. Myers, David G., Sandra Brown Wojcicki, and Bobette S. Aardema. “Attitude Comparison: Is There Ever a Bandwagon Effect?” Journal of Applied Social Psychology, vol 7, issue 4, Dec 1977, pp. 341-347. Doi: 10.1111/j.1559-1816.1977.tb00758.x.
    3. Navazio, Robert. “An Experimental Approach to Bandwagon Research.” Public Opinion Quarterly, Volume 41, Issue 2, Summer 1977, pp. 217–225, Doi: 10.1086/268376.
    4. O’Connor, Nick and Scott Clark. “Beware bandwagons! The bandwagon phenomenon in medicine, psychiatry and management.” Australasian Psychiatry, 2019. Doi: 10.1177/1039856219848829.
    5. Rikkers, Layton F. “The bandwagon effect.” Journal of Gastrointestinal Surgery, vol 6, issue 6, Dec 2002, pp. 787-794. Doi: 10.1016/S1091-255X(02)00054-9.

    Think Further

    1. What are some fields, excluding politics and marketing, where you’ve witnessed or heard about the bandwagon effect taking place? 
    2. Identify a positive example of the bandwagon effect in current social trends.
    3. What are some methods or actions you can take if you’re concerned you might be making a decision because of the bandwagon effect?

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