The bandwagon effect is a type of cognitive bias which causes us to adopt certain behaviours because everyone else is doing it. Cognitive biases are our brain’s way of enabling us to make decisions quickly, based on witnessing other people’s actions or by dipping into our own previous memories, but acting on that basis may not bring a favourable result. Acquiring, therefore, an awareness of the human tendency to ‘jump on the bandwagon’, as it has been referred to, is vital to preventing poor choices as well as the imminent loss of individuality.
Certain conditions can encourage the bandwagon effect, such as a lack of sources outside the consensus or the absence of pre-existing strong views. We are hard-wired to pick sides, and often we mistakenly chose the side that is heard the loudest.
So why do we do it? There is tremendous pressure to set aside our own beliefs and attitudes to conform. Exposure to strong opinions from large groups of people often drowns out our thoughts, and we prefer to keep the peace rather than disrupt uniformity. In many cases, people disregard ideas where there is the possibility of their peers rejecting them and, through education, the message that with time became firmly ingrained in us was that the correct answer is the one identical to everyone else’s.
Take as an example a group project for university; initially, the leader of the group proposes an idea that you are unsure about. You believe there might be a better way to pursue the project, yet when everyone else in the group seems to be agreeing with the initial idea, you automatically assume you were wrong. At the time, this artificial agreement may seem efficient, as you avoid contradictions and tensions in the group, but at the end of the project you may find yourself unsatisfied with the end-result as well as the final grade.
Social media has an undoubtedly large part to play in the perpetuation of the bandwagon effect. It translates to a continuous stream of opinions, fashion, political ideas and beliefs that can drown out our individuality. There is an element of the bandwagon effect in anything deemed “trending” or “viral” by internet users. A potential side-effect is, for example, to stray from medical professionals’ advice and entertain popular fad diets. The effect can be as innocuous as buying an item of clothing, or as dangerous as joining an extremist movement. People can bankrupt themselves, believing that the only measure of success is to have the lifestyle everyone raves about.
It is often leveraged in marketing strategies based on the theory that, once we perceive a brand as popular, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. That is why online influencers have become the new face of many products. They are the ones that start and maintain the trends, the ones followed by millions of young consumers; and so the age of affiliate links and sponsorships began. However, this behaviour is not only exploitive but can also be harmful to others when the promoter does not sincerely enjoy the product, or they are promoting something faulty for the promise of money.
Other damaging examples of the bandwagon effect include the anti-vaccination movement which encourages people not to immunize their children, leading to outbreaks of preventable diseases such as measles. Another is the influence that the mass has on voting; people may lean towards voting ‘tactically’ for a party that is virtually more likely to win than one whose policies they authentically support.
Journalism is also responsible for some of this bandwagon bias, as journalistic interpretation of poll responses and betting odds can hold sway with readers. Often the impetus given to covering stories quickly can overrule the need to conduct valid and conclusive surveys, giving the impression that certain parties are more widely supported than others. In addition, when people read news stories, they are more likely to be attracted by the ones covered by multiple publications as this gives a sense that the event is of greater importance. However that might give them only a small glimpse of what is actually happening around the world or in their country.
On the other hand, we can utilize our natural tendency to follow by surrounding ourselves with people who inspire and engage us. There are positive rallying bandwagons, such as the climate protests, that have allowed students to be part of a constructive change that may help save our planet. The ice bucket challenge is an example of a social media craze that raised the US $220 million worldwide and awareness of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (also known as ALS or motor neuron disease).
How can we avoid the bandwagon effect? We can use knowledge of this phenomenon to listen more critically and become aware of behavioural pitfalls. Engaging in further research and becoming open to new contrasting ideas can be an effective way to break the cycle of popularity. Slowing down the thinking process can give us more time to reason and come up with a conscious decision. For example, if you see something on a post on Instagram and are tempted to buy it, delay the purchase for a day and see if you still feel the same way. If possible, avoid making big decisions when surrounded by people.
As mentioned above, the bandwagon effect is not always negative. There are some scenarios where social cues can be productive. It can be useful to know where the majority vote lies but we should always retain our own opinion and support it if we think it is right. However, when people come together to reject unhealthy habits such as smoking, or to embrace healthier ways of life, that can be a bandwagon worth jumping on.
Photo: Elias Bizannes From: https://www.flickr.com/photos/liako/3141182898