The Bandwagon Effect is a psychological cognitive bias in which people do, say or believe something, despite their own beliefs because they see others doing it.
Therefore, it must be right. Nowadays, the saying is most associated with politics, consumer behaviour and the stock market. But where did it come from? Most of us have heard of ‘jumping on the bandwagon’, which suggests joining or supporting others in something that’s likely to have a favourable outcome. What you might not know is where this phrase originated from. In the 19-century, performing bands played on carts during carnivals and street parades.
These were called bandwagons. As the band played and the wagon went from street to street, the musicians encouraged people to jump on the bandwagon so they could carry on listening to the music as they played. It wasn’t until 1848, however, that the phrase ‘jump on the bandwagon’ came about during the presidential campaign of US senator Zachary Taylor. Dan Rice was a clown campaigning for Taylor and while promoting him he encouraged potential voters to ‘jump on the bandwagon’ to show support for Taylor. At the same time, he suggested that anyone who wasn’t on it was missing out on the fun. His campaign was ultimately successful. Zachary Taylor became the US president in 1849. “Collective fear stimulates herd instinct, and tends to produce ferocity toward those who are not regarded as members of the herd.” ― Bertrand Russell Herd mentality is another name for people following the same patterns of behaviour. Examples of this are queuing up all night for the latest Apple smartphone, parents having to buy the must-have toy for Christmas, and Black Friday.
These are relatively harmless examples of a herd mentality, but when can the effects become dangerous? In 2008, the US housing market crashed. When it became obvious that many homeowners would not be able to pay their mortgages, investors, instead of remaining calm, went into a herd mentality and panicked. Once a few starting selling shares, the rest quickly followed which led to one of the biggest financial disasters in US history. No one likes to admit that they are being manipulated, but we look for validation of our beliefs every day. For instance, when you go to book a holiday, you might go on TripAdvisor, when you buy a product online, you may read the customer reviews. Even something as innocuous as watching a film, we’ll check out the rating and it will influence our choice. So is this manipulation or being selective? Well, it depends. Studies have shown that we’ll pay more for a product if other people recommend it. We all like to think we are on the winning side when it comes to voting for a candidate. Studies show that voters who are undecided are more likely to vote for who is ‘expected to win’. This is a clear case of the bandwagon effect. But the media also plays a huge role in influencing society. Whoever controls the media can decide whether they want to give a candidate positive or negative coverage. Once a politician has the popular vote, it is easy to skim over our rational thoughts.
They have the backing of the nation and the majority of voters, and the majority of us can’t be wrong, surely? Why is it so hard to escape this particular cognitive bias? Because we all want to belong and that’s why it is important to align ourselves with a group. Outsiders don’t do well in society.
They get singled out, bullied, made fun of and isolated. Studies have shown that as a result, teenagers are most susceptible to the bandwagon effect and it’s not surprising when you consider how much they want to fit in. As we get older, we grow in confidence. We become more assured of our beliefs and we feel able to confront those who don’t share the same ideologies as us. Of course, there is another reason and that is that we all like to think we are right. And when we join likeminded people on our particular bandwagon, it reassures us that we are on the right path. Moreover, once we have formulated an opinion, either side of an argument, we’ll find everything we can to support that opinion. Whether it’s facts, reviews or people. So is it possible to avoid this effect or are we destined to remain on the bandwagon? There are ways we can stop jumping on one in the first place. We all like to think we exercise free will over our actions. Perhaps with a little forethought and knowledge, we will be able to in future. R.
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