What is the bandwagon effect?
This cognitive bias refers to people’s tendency to do something simply because other people do it, regardless of whether this aligns with their original beliefs.
The term bandwagon stems from the phrases “jump on the bandwagon” or "hop on the bandwagon" which are typically used in a derogatory manner to refer to the act of becoming interested in or following an activity to gain the acceptance or recognition of others. It is often associated with those who follow a trend without having made a rational evaluation of the idea but have rather copied the behaviour of others. This is a similar phenomenon to ‘herd mentality’ or ‘groupthink’.
Where does the phrase come from?
The term stemmed from the phrase "jump on the bandwagon" which first appeared in American politics in 1848. Dan Rice, a famous and popular circus clown of the time, used his bandwagon and its music to gain attention for his political campaign appearances.
Bandwagon effect examples
There are many examples of the bandwagon effect in action, not only in-store and online within retail, but in wider context too:
- Food and drink: wine shoppers will often go for the bottle that appears well depleted on the shelf because surely this signifies that this brand has been a popular purchase? Ultimately, shoppers are persuaded into purchasing because other shoppers have purchased before them.
- Fashion: many people are influenced by celebrities and popular culture, meaning that they adopt a certain style of clothing after they have seen their favourite public figure sporting the look.
- Music: once an artist has broken into the music industry, their music popularity will snowball as more and more people begin listening to their songs, recommending them or sharing their music on social platforms.
- Social Media: not only is social media influential, but new platforms rely on the bandwagon effect for their own market domination - take TikTok as an example: as increasing numbers of people started using this network, other individuals jumped on the bandwagon and used it too.
- Politics: research suggests that people are more likely to vote for a candidate if they already have a majority backing or are perceived to be ‘winning’. This psychological phenomenon can influence our thoughts and opinions on life-changing choices.
Why the bandwagon effect happens
As an idea or belief increases in popularity, we are more likely to adopt it. There are a few reasons for this:
Our brain uses heuristics
Heuristics are mental shortcuts whose purpose is to allow quick decision-making. Thinking through a behaviour or idea before doing it takes time and many people skip the long process of individual evaluation by relying on other people. Once a notion becomes is perceived to have been 'confirmed' by others (usually a trusted figure in that field), it gains widespread popularity.
We get serious FOMO
Fear of Missing Out. Most of us dislike being excluded from groups, events and so on. To avoid being the odd one out, many of us conform to the behaviour or ideas of a group we find ourselves in to ensure some degree of inclusion and social acceptance. Often, we find that conformity arises out of a desire for approval from others, despite whether we actually really want or need the product or service in question.
Social media plays a large part in establishing this mental state because we see everyone’s lives and desire to be part of what they are doing. If we see a social gathering happening, we want to be part of it. If we see someone on holiday, we want to book a trip, too. The fear of social isolation or exclusion plays a huge role in the bandwagon effect.
Whilst this can prove an extremely powerful factor in accelerating business, it’s worth remembering that people tend to jump off the bandwagon just as quickly as they jumped on! Take fidget spinners as an example - back in 2017 they were rife, but their popularity was short-lived and the novelty quickly wore off.
We are sore losers
Often, want to be on the winning side, which is usually the larger and more powerful side. A large part of why people follow suit is because they look to other people in their social group for guidance on what is right or acceptable. If there appears to be lots of people doing something, we tend to believe that this is the right thing to do; that it is socially acceptable and perhaps even encouraged.
As with most cognitive biases, this desire to be on the 'right side' may be subconscious, meaning that we may not intentionally accept the majority opinion. It is possible that we, as humans, have evolved to instinctively support popular beliefs because standing against an authoritative and widely accepted 'norm' can be disadvantageous, potentially even dangerous.
Groupthink takes hold
We are all affected by those who we surround ourselves with; if we are around people who exercise frequently, we are more inclined to exercise too. If we surround ourselves with people who read a lot, it encourages us to read more. That’s the bandwagon effect - the tendency to follow trends and fads because people gain information from others and feel a desire to conform. Often this desire is confused with pressure to conform with society which is why the bandwagon behaviours generally form very quickly.
Using the bandwagon effect in marketing
Appear popular - use scarcity tactics
A vital instigator of the bandwagon effect is perceived popularity. Aim for your brand to appear as though you are very popular and that you are the choice many other people go for - one of the most-used advertising techniques you'll find in digital marketing!
Limit availability in-store to encourage buying behaviour. It’s just like when you see ‘only 1 room left’ on a hotel reservation! Not only does the urgency make you want to book but the perceived popularity makes you think it must be a good choice.
Dominate the market - be everywhere
Otherwise known as the mere exposure effect. The more shoppers see your brand, the easier it will be for them to recognise it and therefore, the more popular they will perceive it. The more people perceive it as popular, the stronger the effect, meaning sales snowball.
To use the hotel example again, any good holidaymaker will scout out various platforms to find the best deal - no surprise that if the same hotel is listed on booking.com, Trivago, Expedia and more, the holidaymaker will be more inclined to book that specific hotel.
Dominate conservation - be talked about
Give shoppers and consumers reasons to 'jump on the bandwagon' by involving your brand in their wider conversation, such as on social media. The bandwagon effect is in full force on social platforms, such as Instagram, with influencers making millions from becoming trendsetters and getting others to follow suit.
Luxury hotels even offer free overnight stays to these influencers just so they'll share images of the hotel rooms and facilities, subconsciously encouraging their followers to, quite literally, follow in their footsteps.
Appear trusted - build credibility
Feature customer testimonials and company logos to showcase happy customers, as well as highlighting key statistics to support case studies and prove your value. This is particularly effective at converting your target audience, especially when it comes to online sales environments. Once again, the hotel industry are great at this - booking.com features hundreds of holidaymakers' reviews on every listing.
The dangers of the bandwagon effect
What is good for the majority, may not be good for you. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to life, so to base decisions and behaviours off of socially accepted 'norms' could be detrimental to your own desires and ambitions. Three core aspects of this are outlined below:
- Although asking for opinions or researching other's viewpoints can help in creating a well-rounded evaluation, no-one will truly understand your position except you.
- It is important that we don’t put too much faith in popular opinion and that we judge the value of ideas and behaviours ourselves.
- Judging ideas and behaviours on merit rather than popularity can also develop our critical thinking abilities - a transferrable skill to all walks of life.
How can we avoid the bandwagon effect?
While it is impossible to completely rid ourselves of the bandwagon effect, we may be able to counteract it:
- Slowing down our decision making process - allowing time between noticing social signals and making our own decision can allow for critical thinking and prevent us from quickly adopting an idea or behaviour which may not be morally or situationally right.
- Making decisions independently - of course, ask around for opinions, but evaluate them in your own time and make your final decision in an environment where you don’t feel pressured by other people.
- Considering alternative options - don't be afraid to go against the majority view, you might just find the perfect solution is the complete opposite to what everyone else is doing or thinking.
The bandwagon effect is a powerful cognitive bias that offers your brand the chance to grow through perceived popularity. 3 key takeaways:
- This psychological phenomenon originates from politics; people vote for the candidate who appears to have the most support because they want to be part of the majority.
- This cognitive bias dictates that people's decisions are influenced by others who are doing the same.
- It can be attributed to psychological, social and economic factors.
The Bandwagon Effect is No.7 in a series of cognitive bias insights. Why not check out no.8: Base Rate Fallacy?