Decision Making

Bandwagon effect

Thomas Bosshard
  • Thomas Bosshard

Categories

  • Decision Making

How popularity – and lack of popularity – determines the choices we make.

In everyday judgments and decisions, our brains are susceptible to various fallacies known to social psychologists as cognitive biases. Among these is the bandwagon effect. It refers to a behavioral phenomenon whereby people tend to do something primarily because other people are doing it. Originally a political term referring to the tendency of voters to align themselves with the largest and most successful campaign, the bandwagon effect explains how trends and fads spread among people. If a trend appears to be accepted by a majority of people, others will literally “jump on the bandwagon” or else miss out on the fun.

The bandwagon effect has wide implications. For one it is commonly seen in consumer behavior, fed by the notion that if others are buying a product or service, it must be good. A marketing approach that leverages bandwagon effects seeks to increase the popularity of a product or service. Executed effectively, even the illusion of popularity has the potential to attract “unsuspecting” consumers, thereby leading to a ripple effect and higher demand as more and more people are swayed.

Bandwagon effects lie at the heart of modern-day phenomena such as social media sharing, user reviews or viral marketing. Because the likelihood of going along with others is greatly increased as more and more people express their support, bandwagon behavior has also been labeled, in a more pejorative sense, "herd mentality". However, as with all heuristics applied to decision making, the bandwagon effect should not necessarily be considered irrational. Concepts such as collective intelligence or “safety in numbers” suggest the opposite.

Making decisions based on what other people do is a behavioral phenomenon that psychologists call social proof. This third-party validation can be a very powerful motivator, especially in in ambiguous situations. Also known as informational social influence, the principle of social proof can help correct an informational asymmetry or offer guidance in situations where a surplus of options or information make decisions difficult.

Bandwagon behavior has been attributed to a wide variety of phenomena, for example the growth of asset bubbles during bull markets. Research in the area of labor markets is now suggesting that recruitment decisions can be influenced by social proof or bandwagon heuristics. An experiment with fictitious job candidates applying for the same job demonstrated that candidates who were unemployed for a longer period of time were less likely to be contacted by potential employers than candidates in employment – despite similar backgrounds, education and experience. In fact, the longer a candidate was jobless, the less probable he would be considered for a position. One possible explanation is the bandwagon effect: Employers may be reluctant to hire someone others have already passed over.

Although it might not be the only cause of long-term unemployment, riding the bandwagon can explain why it has become a self-fulfilling phenomenon, particularly in competitive labor markets where too much information on too many qualified candidates make the recruiter’s job increasingly difficult.

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