The Bandwagon Effect: Why People Tend to Follow the Crowd

The Bandwagon Effect


The bandwagon effect is a cognitive bias that causes people to think or act in a certain way, because they believe that others are doing the same. For example, the bandwagon effect can cause someone to adopt a certain political ideology, simply because influential people in their social circle have adopted the same ideology.

This form of thinking can affect various types of decisions that people make, including how they dress, which political candidate they vote for, and what ideologies they adopt. Because this effect is so prevalent, and because it can have such a powerful effect on people, it’s important to understand it. As such, in the following article you will learn more about the bandwagon effect, understand why people experience it, and see what you can do in order to account for its influence.


Examples of the bandwagon effect

There are various areas of life where the bandwagon effect can influence people:

  • The bandwagon effect can influence people’s political choices. For example, voters sometimes provide increased support for a certain political party, simply because that party is doing well in recent polls.
  • The bandwagon effect can influence consumers’ decisions regarding which products to buy. For example, people often buy the same type of clothes that other people that they know are wearing, because they want to feel that they are following the latest fashion trends.
  • The bandwagon effect can influence users’ decisions regarding how to rate stories or comments. For example, when people who are browsing social media see a comment that has received a lot of likes or upvotes, they become more likely to upvote it themselves.
  • The bandwagon effect can influence investors’ financial choices. For example, when people see that others are pumping money into the stock market, they tend to also invest more, which can eventually lead to speculative bubbles and market crashes.
  • The bandwagon effect can influence doctors’ medical decisions. For example, many medical procedures have been widely practiced for long stretches of history, despite a lack of sufficient supporting evidence for their efficacy, simply because they were considered popular by the medical community.
  • The bandwagon effect can influence organizations’ implementation of new technologies. For example, many businesses in the hospitality market ended up building a website and implementing new features only when it became popular to do so, despite the fact that doing this early on could have given them a competitive edge in the market.

Overall, these examples demonstrate how the bandwagon effect can influence people’s thinking and decision-making in a wide range of situations.

Furthermore, it’s important to note that the bandwagon effect plays a central role in various related psychological phenomena. These include, for example, herd behavior, which is the way individuals in a group behave when they lack centralized coordination, and groupthink, which is the way individuals in a group strive for conformity in the thinking of individual group members.

Note: in the political context, the bandwagon effect is sometimes referred to as rally-around-the-winner effect or as the follow-the-winner effect, when it causes people to support a candidate simply because they believe that that candidate is about to win. Furthermore, a related but inverse effect is the underdog effect, which occurs when people decide to support a candidate that is viewed as the one who is less likely to win.


Why people experience the bandwagon effect

The main reason why people experience the bandwagon effect is that it serves as a heuristic, which is a mental shortcut that people instinctively use in order to make a decision quickly.

Specifically, bandwagon cues, which are signs that other people believe something or are doing something, can trigger the thought that “if other people like this, then I should too”. This is based on the intuitive notion that other people’s judgment is worth relying on, and on the assumption that it can be beneficial to think in the same way as others.

One example of this is the fact that when people rate news articles, they tend to give higher ratings to articles when they believe that those articles cover a topic that is also covered by other news agencies, since this serves as a signal of the importance of the story.

Furthermore, there are other factors that lead people to experience the bandwagon effect, beyond the use of social cues as a mental heuristic.

One such factor is people’s desire to conform with others, and to act in accordance with what others are doing, because they don’t want to stand out or act against the crowd.

Two others factors which play a role in certain scenarios are people’s desire to support a winning individual or group, and people’s desire to support what they believe is the majority opinion. These factors are important in the context of political voting, for example, where people often experience the bandwagon effect when choosing which candidate to support, which causes them to support the leading candidate, even in cases where this choice conflicts with their beliefs.

Overall, the main reason why people experience the bandwagon effect is that they rely on other people’s judgment when making decisions, which prompts them to make decisions that are similar to those made by others. Furthermore, there are other factors that can cause people to experience the bandwagon effect, such as their desire to conform, and their desire to support the winner in a given competition.


How the bandwagon effect spreads

In general, the bandwagon effect means that the more people believe a certain concept or engage in a certain behavior, the more likely other people are to follow in their footsteps and do the same. The bandwagon effect can therefore become a large-scale social phenomenon, and affect the way in which crowds shape their behaviors and beliefs.

However, though the bandwagon effect can explain why people support a certain concept on a large-scale once it has gained a sufficient following, it does not, by itself, explain how such a following appears in the first place.

A good way to illustrate how an initial crowd or following can form and spread is through the example of the medical sciences, which are generally viewed as rigorous, objective, and empirically-driven, which makes the existence of a bandwagon effect there interesting, and which helps demonstrate just how universal this concept is.

One paper on the topic, titled “The Bandwagons of Medicine“, describes some of the factors which can lead a problematic new medical concept or treatment to gain momentum and become mainstream:

  • The media finds out about a new treatment and publicizes it, often by publishing pieces that are misleading and exaggerated.
  • Various organizations, such as government agencies, research foundations, and private companies also push that new treatment, because they have some vested interest in seeing it succeed.
  • The public picks up on the now-publicized treatment, and exerts pressure on doctors to adopt it, especially when that treatment is perceived as being novel.
  • Doctors often want to accept the use of the new treatment, because it offers a compelling solution to a difficult problem.
  • Furthermore, since doctors have to consume increasingly large amounts of medical information in order to stay aware of the latest trends in their field, it’s sometimes difficult for them to read new material in a sufficiently critical manner.

This demonstrates how a new concept, which is originally promoted by only a single advocate or a small group of advocates, can quickly grow and become widely popular, even when lacking sufficient supporting evidence.

Though this example focused on the topic of medicine, similar processes can occur in other fields, such as fashion and politics, as we saw in the earlier examples of how the bandwagon effect can influence people. In all of these fields, what happens is that a new concept gains a small following, and once this following grows to a sufficient size, a large-scale bandwagon effect begins, which causes more people to support this concept, in increasingly large numbers.

It’s important to remember that the bandwagon effect relies primarily on the idea of social proof, and on people’s desire to conform, which increases as more people adopt a certain practice. This means that the bandwagon effect has a positive feedback mechanism, since the more people experience the bandwagon effect and adopt a certain practice, the stronger the bandwagon effect becomes, and the more likely other people are to be influenced by it and to also join the bandwagon.

This is evident, for example, in the way in which new technologies and trends are adopted, through a process which is referred to as the diffusion of innovations. In this process, there are five classes of people: innovators, early adopters, early majority, late majority, and laggards, and as more people adopt the new technology, more people who were initially reluctant to do so also change their mind and hop on the bandwagon.

Note: a related concept, which demonstrates how the bandwagon effect can influence societies on a large scale, is the availability cascade, which is a self-reinforcing process through which a certain stance gains increasing prominence in public discourse.


Variability in the bandwagon effect

It’s important to keep in mind that the bandwagon effect depends on many factors, and that different people will experience the bandwagon effect to a different degree in different situations.

For example, when it comes to politics, people who are strongly invested in their current political party generally won’t vote for an opposing party just because it’s doing well in the polls. However, people who are unsure who to vote for in the first place might be swayed by such polls, especially if they don’t have strong preexisting political beliefs, which demonstrates the unsurprising fact that people who are undecided on a certain topic are more likely to be influenced by what other people think about it.

This means that the bandwagon effect can often be limited in its scope, and influence only a small proportion of the population. However, this small proportion might still be enough in order to have a significant impact on the situation, and the fact that the bandwagon effect plays a role in so many contexts and affects even highly-trained professionals means that it’s an important cognitive bias to be aware of.


How to avoid falling for the bandwagon effect

Since the bandwagon effect is a cognitive bias, you can reduce the impact that it has on you by using various debiasing techniques, which improve your ability to assess situations to make rational decisions. Essentially, your goal in using these techniques is to minimize your tendency to intuitively use social cues as the key factor when making important decisions.

For example, here are some things that you can do in order to reduce the degree to which you are influenced by the bandwagon effect:

  • Slow down your reasoning process. By letting some time pass between the point at which you encounter social cues and the point at which you make a final decision on something, you improve your ability to conduct a conscious reasoning process and avoid the initial tendency to imitate others.
  • Set up optimal conditions for decision making. For example, you will likely be more vulnerable to the bandwagon effect if you’re surrounded by other people, so choosing to only make a certain decision when you’re by yourself can help you think more clearly.
  • Consider alternative options. By thinking about alternative options that you can choose beyond the one that is adopted by the majority, you can mitigate the appeal of that option.

While these techniques can all help you minimize the social influence that you experience while making a decision, when you account for the bandwagon effect you should also remember that social cues aren’t necessarily bad.

This means that you don’t want to avoid social cues entirely, and that you can certainly use them as one factor to consider when you’re weighing your options before making a decision. Furthermore, there are situations where it can be beneficial to follow the majority opinion, or to adopt something that has already been accepted by others.

For example, if you’re trying to decide which book to read or which product to buy, you can certainly rely on the ratings and reviews that other people left on it, while also taking other relevant factors into consideration.

As such, when it comes to accounting for the bandwagon effect, you should not avoid social cues entirely. Rather, you should strive to be aware of the way in which these cues could influence your decision-making, and try to minimize the impact that the bandwagon effect has on you, so you can take these cues into account in an emotionally-neutral way, which will allow you to make a rational decision.

Here, you saw a few debiasing techniques that you can use to reduce the influence of the bandwagon effect when necessary. There are other techniques that you can also use, and to learn more about them and about how you can implement them, you should read this comprehensive guide to debiasing.


How to take advantage of the bandwagon effect

Because the bandwagon effect is so prevalent and powerful, there might be situations where you will want to take advantage of it.

For example, you could choose to openly display social proof or bandwagon cues, in order to signal to other people that there is support for whatever it is you are promoting. Such cues can take many forms, from pictures of large crowds at a speech that you gave, to positive ratings on a movie poster, to blurbs from influential people on a book cover.

Video-sharing sites demonstrate the benefits of displaying these cues, since people often use popularity cues such as the number of views that a video has in order to decide whether to watch it or not.

Essentially, if you want to take advantage of the bandwagon effect, you can do so in an effective manner by figuring out the answers to the following questions:

  • What am I trying to promote?
  • Who am I trying to promote it to?
  • What social cues will my target audience respond to favorably?
  • How can I create these cues?
  • How can I present these cues in the best way possible?

Of course, there’s no need to reinvent the wheel when it comes to doing this. In many cases, once you figure out what you are trying to promote and who you are trying to promote it to, you can look at previous examples of similar things that were promoted to similar audiences, and take ideas from them regarding how you can take advantage of the bandwagon effect as effectively as possible.


Summary and conclusions

  • The bandwagon effect is a cognitive bias that causes people to think or act in a certain way, because they believe that others are doing the same.
  • The bandwagon effect can affect influence types of decisions that people make, including which movies they watch, which candidates they vote for, and which stances they adopt on controversial topics.
  • People experience the bandwagon effect for several reasons, including their overreliance on social cues when deciding how to think or act, as well as their desire to conform with other group members.
  • You can use various debiasing techniques in order to avoid falling for the bandwagon effect, such as considering alternative options that are not supported by the majority or waiting until you’re alone before choosing, which will allow you to make decisions in a less biased manner.
  • When accounting for the bandwagon effect, it’s important to remember that social cues aren’t inherently bad, and that in many cases they can be beneficial to take into account when making a decision, as long as you can do so in a way which allows you to make rational decisions.