Why do we support opinions as they become more popular?

 

Bandwagon Effect

, explained.

In a nutshell:

What is the Bandwagon Effect?

The bandwagon effect refers to our habit of adopting certain behaviors or beliefs because many other people do the same.

Where might I see the Bandwagon Effect?

Consider the following hypothetical: John is an avid fan of his local basketball team. They are called “the Sharks.” John’s favorite team has always done well enough, and he loves attending their games with his friends every weekend.

One day, the league officials announce the formation of a new basketball team based in the neighboring town named the “the Fighters.” This newly minted team soon rose to the top of the leaderboard, winning nearly all of their games that basketball season. Their popularity skyrocketed. Soon, people from John’s town could be seen wearing Fighters’ jerseys and cheering them on at local bars. “Fighter mania” as it was called, spread all across the region.

The Sharks, John’s favourite team, were not doing so well. John’s friends, who were also supporters, slowly started switching allegiances to the more dominant and popular Fighters. Suddenly, John decided that he too liked the Fighters. They did have a shot at winning this year’s championship, he thought to himself.

The next day, John could be seen cheering on the Fighters at his local bar — indistinguishable from the mass of other fans that formed Fighter mania.

The snowballing popularity of the Fighters, and John’s subsequent decision to support them, is a product of the bandwagon effect. Yes, the Fighters were a good team, but John began supporting them because so many around him had switched allegiances.

How the Bandwagon Effect causes us to make bad decisions individually

The bandwagon effect can extend beyond sports. It can affect all sorts of decisions we make in our lives. The primary worry is that it can override the individual critical thinking that often goes into making good decisions. Decisions that benefit many other people do not always benefit us. Consider going to university: while this is a good option for many people (as evidenced by high enrolment in many advanced countries), it is not the right choice for everyone. Some people might benefit more from deciding to take part in trade or apprenticeship programs. It is important that we evaluate ideas and behaviors on the basis of their merit and what they could mean for us, and then make decisions accordingly. The bandwagon effect can prevent this from happening by convincing us that the right decision is the popular decision.

How those decisions add up to systemic challenges

A lack of individual critical thinking can have particularly damaging implications when it is widespread. Social and political movements are often fueled by the bandwagon effect. Certainly, not all of them have served the public good or benefited those who join them. People who join the anti-vaccination movement, for instance, become less likely to have their children regularly immunized. Widespread avoidance of vaccinations has been linked to harmful disease outbreaks such as measles.1 History has shown that dangerous populist (sometimes fascist) movements are also driven by a snowballing uptake of political messages aimed at resonating with ‘ordinary people.’ Damaging movements are often enabled by the lack of critical thinking entailed by the bandwagon effect.

Cognitive biases such as the bandwagon effect can also negatively influence several professions. In finance, for instance, investors may see a large uptake in capital as a signal to follow suit. A buying frenzy can ensue, where prices are driven up by widespread speculation that they will continue rising. This is known as a “price bubble,” which can crash with spectacular consequences for investors and average people alike. The 2008 housing crisis exemplifies such a phenomenon.

Why does the Bandwagon Effect happen?

As an idea or belief increases in popularity, we are more likely to adopt it. There are a few reasons for this. The first of which is efficiency:

Our brain uses shortcuts

These shortcuts are called “heuristics.” The bandwagon effect serves as a heuristic by allowing us to make a decision quickly. Thinking through a behavior or idea and deciding whether it is worth supporting or not takes time. Many of us see widespread adoption as a cue that we should adopt a similar stance. This is to say, we skip the long process of individual evaluation and rely on other people, measured by widespread popularity. This is a sign that many people are in favour of an idea or behavior, so we can safely decide to adopt it.2

We want to fit in

Most of us dislike being excluded from communities, social events, and so forth. Unfortunately, exclusion can be the upshot of ‘standing out.’ To avoid being the odd one out, many of us go along with the behavior or ideas of a group we find ourselves in. Conformity ensures some degree of inclusion and social acceptance. This can be taken a step further, as we can sometimes adopt or champion the norms or attitudes of the group to gain approval and bolster our position.3

We want to be on the winning side

Often, it is the ideas or beliefs of the larger social group or ‘majority’ that are seen as right, and subsequently adopted. This may be subconscious, so we may not intentionally accept the majority opinion because we want to be on the ‘winning side.’ It may be the case that we have evolved to instinctively support popular beliefs because standing against the tide represented by the majority can be disadvantageous at best and dangerous at worst.4

Why should someone be aware of the Bandwagon Effect?

It is important that we don’t put too much faith in popular opinion as a tool for judging the worth of certain ideas and behaviors. As mentioned above, what is good for the majority of people may not be good for you. Further still, it might not be morally or situationally right. People often make harmful decisions when they are part of a crowd in what’s known as “mob mentality.” It is best to avoid this.

Judging ideas and behaviors ourselves according to their merit rather than popularity can also develop our critical thinking skills. Even the product of this process can be valuable: realizing unique stances forms your individual sense of identity. We don’t all want to be the same. There’s often benefits to standing out, such as recognition and pride in your own conviction. Deciding to ‘hop on the bandwagon’ as it is commonly said, can negate the benefits.

How to avoid the Bandwagon Effect

While it is impossible to completely rid ourselves of the bandwagon effect, we may be able to counteract our tendency to automatically use social cues as a driving factor when making influential decisions. This can be achieved by first slowing down our decision making process. Allowing some time to pass between when we notice the social signal and our final decision, can allow for critical thinking and prevent us from quickly adopting a popular idea. Second, try to make decisions in an environment where you don’t feel pressured by other people. Lastly, consider alternative options that go against the majority view. They may prove to be more beneficial, or at least mitigate the appeal of going with the prevailing sentiment.5

How it all started

While the phenomenon of ideas becoming more appealing in virtue of their popularity is not a new discovery, using the term “bandwagon” to denote the effect began in 1848. During Zachary Taylor’s successful United States presidential campaign, a performance clown that was popular at the time invited Taylor to join his circus bandwagon. Taylor received a significant amount of recognition, and people started claiming that his political opponents might also want to “jump on the bandwagon.”6 Academic study of the bandwagon effect gained traction in the 1980s, as scholars studied the effect of public opinion polls on voter opinions. It was feared that published polls encouraged people to vote according to popular opinion rather than their knowledge of the issues at hand.7

Example 1 - Snowballing political campaigns

The bandwagon effect is thought to influence political elections as voters are drawn to parties or candidates that they perceive as being popular and therefore likely to win the election. A team of researchers in Germany led by Magdalena Obermaier conducted an experiment with 765 participants in 2017 to look into this relationship.

Participants were told that they were joining a study on the news coverage before a local election. They were given news articles about a fictitious mayoral election of a German town, followed by information of the candidates’ history. Next participants were divided into groups that were given different polls: one showed a candidate losing by a wide margin, another showed a candidate winning by a large margin, and the last group was not shown any polls.

The results supported the influence of bandwagon effect, as polling information (ie. perceived popularity) had a strong influence on whether or not participants expected a candidate to win or not. When no poll was available, participants formed their opinion using candidates’ history.8

Example 2 - historical influence on medicine

The bandwagon effect can influence the decisions made by doctors. Many medical procedures that have been widely practiced for periods in history have subsequently been disproven. Doctors’ widespread use and support of them can be attributed to their popularity at the time.

Professor Emeritus of Surgery at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Layton F. Rikkers calls these prevailing practices “medical bandwagons.” He defines this as “the overwhelming acceptance of unproved but popular [medical] ideas.”9

Rikkers offers the example of tonsillectomy (the removal of one’s tonsils) as a recent example of medical bandwagons. He notes that although the practice can be beneficial in some specific cases, scientific support for the universal use it saw was never published. Doctors were drawn to tonsillectomy not on the basis of its effectiveness, but because they saw it was widely used.

Summary

What the Bandwagon Effect is

The bandwagon effect refers to our habit of adopting certain behaviors or beliefs because many other people do the same.

Why the Bandwagon Effect happens

As an idea or belief increases in popularity, we are more likely to adopt it. The first reason for this, is that the bandwagon effect serves as a heuristic by allowing us to make a decision quickly. We skip the long process of individual evaluation and rely on other people to do it for us. Because widespread popularity as a sign many people were in favour of an idea or behavior, we also decide to adopt it. Second, to avoid standing out and being excluded as a result, many of us support the behavior or ideas of a group we find ourselves in. Third, we accept the majority opinion because we want to be on the ‘winning side.’ It may be the case that we have evolved to instinctively support popular beliefs because standing against the tide represented by the majority can be disadvantageous at best and dangerous at worst.

Example 1 – Snowballing political campaigns

The bandwagon effect is thought to influence political elections as voters are drawn to parties or candidates that they perceive as being popular and therefore likely to win the election. A 2017 study done by German researchers looked into this relationship by studying the effects of polling information on voter perceptions surrounding a fictitious mayoral election. The results supported the influence of bandwagon effect, as polling information (ie. perceived popularity) had a strong influence on whether or not participants expected a candidate to win or not.

Example 2 – Historical influence on medicine

The bandwagon effect can influence the decisions made by doctors. Many medical procedures that have been widely practiced for periods in history have subsequently been disproven. Doctors’ widespread use and support of them can be attributed to their popularity at the time. Tonsillectomy is cited as a recent example of medical bandwagons. Although the practice is said to be beneficial in some specific cases, scientific support for the universal use it saw was lacking. Doctors were drawn to tonsillectomy not on the basis of its effectiveness, but because they saw it was widely used.

How to avoid the Bandwagon Effect

We may be able to counteract our tendency to automatically use social cues as a driving factor when making influential decisions. This can be achieved by first slowing down our decision making process. Allowing some time to pass between when we notice the social signal and our final decision, can allow for critical thinking and prevent us from quickly adopting a popular idea. Second, try to make decisions in an environment where you don’t feel pressured by other people. Lastly, consider alternative options that go against the majority view. They may prove to be more beneficial, or at least mitigate the appeal of going with the prevailing sentiment.

Sources

  1. Cherry, K. (2020, April 28). The Bandwagon Effect Is Why People Fall for Trends. Retrieved July 05, 2020, from https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-the-bandwagon-effect-2795895
  2. The Bandwagon Effect: Why People Tend to Follow the Crowd. (n.d.). Retrieved July 05, 2020, from https://effectiviology.com/bandwagon/
  3. Cherry, K. (2020, April 28). The Bandwagon Effect Is Why People Fall for Trends. Retrieved July 05, 2020, from https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-the-bandwagon-effect-2795895
  4. Cherry, K. (2020, April 28). The Bandwagon Effect Is Why People Fall for Trends. Retrieved July 05, 2020, from https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-the-bandwagon-effect-2795895
  5. The Bandwagon Effect: Why People Tend to Follow the Crowd. (n.d.). Retrieved July 05, 2020, from https://effectiviology.com/bandwagon/
  6. Sullivan, L. (Ed.). (n.d.). SAGE Reference – The SAGE Glossary of the Social and Behavioral Sciences. Retrieved July 05, 2020, from https://sk.sagepub.com/reference/behavioralsciences/n201.xml
  7. Bandwagon Effect. (n.d.). Retrieved July 05, 2020, from https://www.oxfordbibliographies.com/view/document/obo-9780199756841/obo-9780199756841-0113.xml
  8. Vitelli, R. (2015, December 30). Riding the Bandwagon Effect. Retrieved July 05, 2020, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/media-spotlight/201512/riding-the-bandwagon-effect
  9. Rikkers, L. (2002). The Bandwagon Effect. Journal of Gastrointestinal Surgery, 6(6), 787-794. doi:10.1016/s1091-255x(02)00054-9