Bandwagon Effect

Lemmings by Kyle Fewell

snowball effect

The bandwagon effect is a phenomenon whereby the rate of uptake of beliefs, ideas, fads and trends increases the more that they have already been adopted by others. As more people come to believe in something, others also ‘hop on the bandwagon’ regardless of the underlying evidence.

The tendency to follow the actions or beliefs of others can occur because individuals directly prefer to conform to social pressure, or because individuals derive information from others. The former has been used to explain Asch’s conformity experiments, a series of studies directed by Polish American social psychologist Solomon Asch studying if and how individuals yield to or defy a majority group and the effect of such influences on beliefs and opinions.

The latter theory is associated with Turkish American social psychologist Muzafer Sherif’s experimental study of autokinetic movement (a phenomenon of visual perception in which a stationary, small point of light in an otherwise dark or featureless environment appears to move). He demonstrated how mental evaluation norms were created by human beings. In his experiments, three participants enter the dark room, and watch the light. It appears to move, and the participants are asked to estimate how far it traveled. These estimates are made out loud, and with repeated trials, each group of three converges on an estimate. Some groups converged on a high estimate, some low, and some in-between. The critical finding is that groups found their own level, their own ‘social norm’ of perception. This occurred naturally, without discussion or prompting.

When invited back individually a week later and tested alone in the dark room, participants replicated their original groups’ estimates. This suggests that the influence of the group was informational rather than coercive; because they continued to perceive individually what they had as members of a group, Sherif concluded that they had internalized their original group’s way of seeing the world. Because the phenomenon of the autokinetic effect is entirely a product of a person’s own perceptual system, this study is evidence of how the social world pierces the person’s skin, and affects the way they understand their own physical and psychological sensations.

When individuals make rational choices based on the information they receive from others, economists have proposed that information cascades can quickly form in which people decide to ignore their personal information signals and follow the behavior of others. Cascades explain why behavior is fragile—people understand that they are based on very limited information. As a result, fads form easily but are also easily dislodged. Such informational effects have been used to explain political bandwagons and fashion trends.

Literally, a bandwagon is a wagon which carries the band in a parade, circus or other entertainment. The phrase ‘jump on the bandwagon’ first appeared in American politics in 1848 when 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. As his campaign became more successful, other politicians strove for a seat on the bandwagon, hoping to be associated with his success. Later, during the time of William Jennings Bryan’s 1900 presidential campaign, bandwagons had become standard in campaigns, and ‘jump on the bandwagon’ was used as a derogatory term, implying that people were associating themselves with the success without considering what they associated themselves with.

Because of time zones, election results are broadcast in the eastern parts of the United States while polls are still open in the west. This difference has led to research on how the behavior of voters in western United States is influenced by news about the decisions of voters in other time zones. In 1980, NBC News declared Ronald Reagan to be the winner of the presidential race on the basis of the exit polls several hours before the voting booths closed in the west.

A study by UCLA psychologist Albert Mehrabian that was published in ‘The Journal of Applied Social Psychology’ in 1998 tested the relative importance of the bandwagon effect (rally around the winner) versus the underdog effect (empathic support for those trailing). Bogus poll results presented to voters prior to the 1996 Republican primary clearly showed the bandwagon effect to predominate on balance. Indeed, approximately 6% of the variance in the vote was explained in terms of the bogus polls, showing that poll results (whether accurate or inaccurate) can significantly influence election results in closely contested elections. In particular, assuming that one candidate ‘is an initial favorite by a slim margin, reports of polls showing that candidate as the leader in the race will increase his or her favorable margin.’ Thus, as poll results are repeatedly reported, the bandwagon effect will tend to snowball and become a powerful aid to leading candidates.

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