The Bandwagon Effect
Why is it that the last couple of years more and more men are picking up the habit of growing a beard? What is the deal with people of all ages, creeds, backgrounds, getting tattoos pretty much daily? What about women changing their haircut or dressing style every couple of months, according to the latest fashion trend? Finally, why is it that lately, the football supporters of Barcelona F.C. seem to have increased?
Well, these ostensibly unrelated phenomena are all direct results of the bandwagon effect.
What we believe
We believe that if a lot of people are claiming something, then it must be true. If a lot of individuals are interested in doing something or buying something, it should have some value to us too, so we are also doing it or buying it.
What is the reality
We are heavily influenced by what other people do, how they behave, what they own. Individuals subconsciously have the tendency to follow the majority. We need social proof, i.e. we determine what’s right or wrong in any given situation according to what others think or believe. Simply put, we need to belong somewhere, not to be excluded. That may be a team, a group, or even an opinion. We have a basic instinct to act in a way dictated by the trending popular belief.
The Bandwagon Effect
Everyone else is doing it, it must be right, the masses must be right. This is the tendency people have. The larger the number of individuals who believe or do something, the more probable it is for an individual to follow. This is the basis of the availability cascade, too.
The term originates in the USA, where a famous clown used a bandwagon and music to gain attention for his political campaign appearances. As his campaign grew more successful and popular, more people literally jumped on the bandwagon to show their support to the candidate. Bandwagons became standards in campaigns by the 1900s, and “jump on the bandwagon” became a term signifying that people want to be part of the majority even if the cause is not in line with their beliefs.
But how is that happening?
People belong to groups. A group might be a family, a man’s company, a sports club, a work department, or even the hairdresser’s. Most of the times, people seek for the consensus in those groups. They want to avoid fights, and the result of this is that the rational thinking of the individuals in those groups is set aside, even in favor of the irrational opinions of the group.
This is called groupthink, and bandwagon is a form of groupthink. As we said, the more the people who believe, follow or do something, the heavier the influence on the individual.
Also, the need of people for social proof and the tendency to belong somewhere, lead them to not express disagreement within a group, in fear of exclusion. People are afraid of being left alone, thus following the majorities.
Finally, people want to be with the winners. As we are going to see with the elections and the polling example, people want to be correct, to follow the right path, the winning path. They believe that the majority leads the to the right path, which most of the times is the winning one.
Although the bandwagon effect manifests in all age categories, the effect is stronger in adolescents.
Bandwagon Effect in athletism
A typical example in sports is how people that are not fond of a team or even a particular sport itself start supporting a specific team because it becomes mainstream for some reason. Some years ago, Manchester United was in metaphorical top form, winning the premier league titles and Champions League. That, in combination with David Beckham’s extreme appeal to women, led to a rapid increase in female supporters for Manchester United. The last couple of years, with Barcelona’s rise to success, you can see a lot of people supporting Barça’s football team. It has become sort of a trend, even to non-fans of the sport. In addition to that, you can see a lot of people watching the El Classico matches between Barcelona and Real Madrid, an event not so popular the previous decade.
Bandwagon Effect in clothing and accessorizing
I think in fashion things are more obvious. The more the people who start wearing a new item of clothing, or adopting a new hairstyle, the more people the people who follow this trend. Think of beards for men, hipster fashion, vintage clothing, Αpple’s products, whatever else comes to mind.
Bandwagon Effect in internet sales and marketing/advertising
An example of how the bandwagon effect influences those fields is the review. Imagine yourself shopping for books in Amazon. You are looking for a book on a particular subject, e.g. economics. Your search results in one book with a five-star review, and another one with hundreds of reviews, the average rating being four stars. Which one are you going to buy?
Now think about two Kickstarter campaigns. One’s been running for 20 days, having raised 20.000 $ on a 100.000 $ goal, the other one 500.000 $ on a 100.000 $ goal. The products are similar, but you haven’t seen them, they have not been manufactured yet. Most people would make a pledge to the second campaign.
The same applies for Facebook and Twitter likes and shares. People even go as far as buying followers and likes in order to appear popular, to sell their products or attract people to their pages.
Bandwagon effect in alternative healing methods
As far as medicine is concerned, through time, but even now, there are a lot of alternative medicine methods that have become popular. This given the fact that, in may cases, alternative medicine offers no scientific base for its results, on the contrary, it’s been repeatedly proven that it simply does nothing. Some of these alternative treatments survived only until they were replaced by others as a result of the bandwagon effect (see Lawrence Cohen and Henry Rothschild, “The Bandwagons of Medicine”)
Bandwagon effect in the political arena
Another way the bandwagon effect influences our lives is through politics. More specifically, the bandwagon effect occurs in voting, as the polling results regularly affect the ellectorate. People vote for candidates that are more likely to win. People align themselves with the majority, so they follow the most likely winner.
In an experiment, students were polled about election results. Some of them were given information about the possible winner. It was shown that students who belonged to the independent category, meaning they did not endorse a particular party, were heavily influenced by the info of the possible winner. They were even twice as likely to vote for the candidate that was expected to win. (The Vanishing Marginals, the bandwagon, and the Mass Media. Robert K. Gobiel and Todd G. Shields, The Journal of Politics Aug. 1994)
Bandwagon Effect in Economy
There is a contrast with the supply and demand theory, which states that there’s a correlation between what people buy and their needs as well as the price of the product. According to Gary Becker, the bandwagon effect tends to disrupt this balance. In simple terms, the more the people who buy a product, the greater the need it creates for others to buy it too. This changes the demand curve by disconnecting peoples’ purchases from the necessity factor, therefore influencing the supply.
Bandwagon Effect in stock exchange
If people with poor knowledge of the stock market decide to enter trading, they invest in those stocks they’ve heard are currently “hot,” no further research done. Such an investment method in most cases leads to severe money loss. A typical example of this is the Greek stock options bubble. The Greek stock market started an increase rally in 1998, leading all kinds of people to invest. Teachers didn’t want to have classes during the last hours in schools in order to leave and watch the stocks, almost 1 million of people out of 10 started buying and selling stocks, slowly but steadily building a bubble in 2001. A bubble that eventually burst, resulting in the majority of people losing all their money.
This rule could apply to early investors who don’t know a lot about the market. They do not analyze the data, rather invest money to whatever is currently hot.
More experienced investors know about how the bandwagon effect works. These people tend to do the opposite, i.e. sell their stocks once they’ve reach a particular point and wait for the bubble to burst.
The bright side
Bandwagon can sometimes have positive results. For example, following the masses and believing that climate change is a thing that should be confronted is more in a positive direction than the opposite.
How to avoid it
When you see a lot of people doing something, be skeptical about it. Take a step back and think before you act. During elections, try to do research before you cast your vote, weigh pros and cons of each candidate; after all, in the end, it is your life you are deciding about. Try to find information about an issue by yourself; do not rely on, or at least only, on the information, others provide to you. When people are running to buy the latest trend, stop and think: do you really need this product? Does it give you any joy, or the majority simply affects you? Try to listen to your inner self, according to your likes and dislikes before you do, buy, act.
If most people do something, it doesn’t mean it is right. Do your research, use your judgment, then decide.
How to use it
If you have a goal to achieve that requires the involvement of many people, try to get some of them involved, to believe in what you are doing, or even use some friends in order to get more people attracted.
Imagine that it is summer and as you are walking down the street, you come across a small ice cream parlor with 15 people waiting in line to buy a cone. Most probably, this tempts you to buy one yourself. Now if it was your own shop, how could you achieve that from the beginning? Of course having great ice cream would be a factor, but if you have your friends and family waiting lining up to buy an ice cream, it would help attract other people too. Naturally, if you want to keep it that way, you need to have great ice cream, but the artificial line would earn you the first customers more easily, let word of mouth do the rest.
The same goes for social media: very few users want to read a post, or like a page about a product with a low number of (or zero) likes and shares. Now if you have a page you want to make popular, try to attract some people and create some buzz. The more, the better.