Cognitive Biases — The Bandwagon Effect

Photo by Marten Bjork on Unsplash

The bandwagon effect occurs when people do, believe or say something because they see other people are doing it (so it must be right), despite the fact that it might not line up with their their own beliefs, which they tend to ignore.

The bandwagon effect is becoming more prominent in today’s world with social media influencers, review websites like TripAdvisor and even the ecommerce sites like Amazon and Ebay, in customers’ reviews. As Francis Bacon once said:

The human understanding when it has once adopted an opinion (either as being the received opinion or as being agreeable to itself) draws all things else to support and agree with it.

Why is it called the Bandwagon Effect?

A bandwagon

The term bandwagon refers to a cart that carries a band through a parade.

As the wagon went through the streets, the musicians would encourage people to jump aboard and enjoy the music that was being played.

The phrase “Jump On The Bandwagon” came into use in 1848 during the American elections. In particular, it was used by Dan Rice, a clown, who referenced it when he participated in political campaigns to promote candidate Taylor.

In the end the campaign was successful, with Zachary Taylor becoming president in 1849.

The psychological implications of this social proof bias is that we tend to go along with the majority rather than branching out on our own.

We’re influenced by other people’s choices and we feel that, because someone else has done something, it makes sense to follow that path.

Miguel Virkkunen Carvalho — Flock of Sheep — Flickr

Whenever we’ve got a decision to make we want to be on the wining side, we look towards our peers, friends and family to see what is right or acceptable and in our social groups there is pressure to conform and be “normal” — just jump on the bandwagon.

Demonstrations of this bias

Queuing for an iPhone at the Apple Store by Newtown Grafitti on Flickr

The big one

One of my favourite examples of the bandwagon effect in the retail industry is the famous queues outside the Apple Stores before they release the next new iGadget.

People wait for hours and even go to extremes such as camping overnight to get their hands on the new iWhatever, causing the perception that it’s worth waiting for, which increases the value of the product.

Elections and politics

Elections are another example of this bias at work. With news channels, social media platforms and other digital apps creating an influence that one candidate has more popularity over another, we sometimes skip our rational thought processes and instead believe a particular candidate is stronger than the others because they have more (positive) coverage and so we just vote for them, rather than looking at what they stand for.

Mobile apps

In terms of mobile apps, a good example of the bandwagon effect at work is Pokemon GO. Using word-of-mouth on Twitter, Facebook and other social media channels, there was a sudden incline in people talking about Pokemon Go which caused downloads of the app to spike as well.

You can probably think of a lot more examples of where social influence has played a huge part in persuading people to buy or invest their time into something, even though it goes against their natural instinct.

If you have a product to advertise, be cautious when using this bias. It’s natural to only talk about the positives of your product because you want everyone to love it as much as you do, but people will likely see through this, and wonder what negatives you’re (unintentionally) trying to cover up.

Find a balance between positive and negatives and if its a good product, people will naturally flock to it and jump on the bandwagon.

It’s also worth noting that you should be careful when using social proof (such as reviews, share buttons etc.), as it can backfire easily.

In an experiment done by VWO, they removed social media buttons from their site as the buttons didn’t have a high share count. They found the landing page with no social media share buttons improved conversion by 11.9%.

It goes to show that if you’ve got a product with amazing reviews and loads of shares, shouting about it can help create a social media buzz! On the other hand, if you don’t have much engagement, then removing social media buttons, for example, could help direct people to a more relevant call-to-action and allows you to improve the product first, before creating a (potentially) negative bandwagon effect — “hardly anyone has shared it on facebook, and all the other reviews say it’s awful, so it must be true!”.

The best type of social proof is one that a person can relate to. If they can see that a person was in a similar situation and this product solved the problem for them then you will hook the potential customer.

“When you say it, it’s marketing. When your customer says it, it’s social proof.” Andy Crestodina

Overall the social proof of “jumping on the bandwagon” shows that we don’t make decisions as methodical or as rational as we like to think — we can be swayed in our judgement.

Through the use of reviews, word-of-mouth, marketing and other channels you can cause people to fall in love with your product even if it isn’t the best product on the market.

On the flip side, you could also have a mass product-hating craze on your hands, but let’s not focus on the negative. Any publicity is good publicity… right?

Further reading on the cognitive biases series

Senior Interaction Designer at Companies House, Government. Living in Cardiff, South Wales, interested in human psychology and behaviours.