The Bandwagon Effect (Cognitive Bias #1)

May 24, 2006

Since thinking about Daniel Gilbert’s talk about how we tend to make errors of odds and errors of future value about things, I thought it would be sort of fun to walk through many of the known cognitive biases and logical fallacies that our brains are susceptible to. Why not? Here we go.

We all know the bandwagon of popular opinion and its magical allure. Literally, bandwagons are wagons that carry the band in a parade. Being on the bandwagon was a very convenient way to experience the parade since you got to listen to the music and didn’t have to walk. Since William Jennings Bryan used the phrase “hop on the bandwagon” during his 1900 presidential campaign, it has itself become a trendy term to express the naive adoption of popular trends simply because they are popular.

Why is the bandwagon so alluring?

It has to do with certainty, and the odds of your own judgment being challenged. If you don't have a strong preference for a particular thing, it is easier to agree with the majority than it is to disagree. Disagreement usually requires a solid stance to support your side. The more people on the bandwagon, the more solid your argument about why you're not on it has to be. Try arguing for the war in a liberal city and you will need to have much more information to back up your opinion than you would if you were against the war. And vice versa, if you try arguing against the war in a conservative city the same burden of proof will lie on you.

The bandwagon, literally and figuratively, is for resting your feet. Letting the trend carry you forward, while being able to listen to the music and enjoy the company of friends at the same time.  It's not a bad thing, but the feet and preferences do need to be stretched once in a while.

The opposite of the bandwagon effect

The opposite of the bandwagon effect is just as silly as the bandwagon effect itself.  While some of us pride ourselves on avoiding bandwagons, it's as much folly to avoid bandwagons simply because they are popular.  

Try catching yourself falling hopping on and avoiding bandwagons.  Try to stop seeing them altogether, and judging the band and parade on their own merit rather than on their popularity or unpopularity.  It's really difficult! 


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