Bias of the Bandwagon Effect

Bias of the Bandwagon Effect March 14, 2019

by Cindy Kunsman

Plain and simple, conformity and social proof meld to form the Bandwagon Effect – the likelihood that people will like something just because they believe that many others like and support it. We human beings do this with beliefs also. If many other people believe something, we are more likely to believe the same thing to be a part of our desired social group. This is especially so if others share the same information that influenced those who are ‘already on the bandwagon.’

The association of this bias doesn’t relate to politics by any mistake; the term finds its origins in it. Dan Rice was a popular circus performer during the 19th Century, and he quite literally used a bandwagon to draw an eager crowd. He was known to wear an Uncle Sam beard, and Zachary Taylor sought him out in order to ride on his bandwagon, as did many other politicians. Taylor gave Rice the honorary title of colonel when seeking candidacy as the US President in 1886


Yet again, we have another cognitive bias that melds liking with social proof, creating pressure for individuals to conform to group norms. Lack of conformity, as most people can attest from discussions of politics, brings with it social and relationship consequences. (How many people have lost friends over whether or not they support Donald Trump?) The pressure to conform can create a strong bias to ignore evidence that challenges the prevailing popular opinion of the population. It’s often easier to cave into popular opinion than to stand as a dissident.

We see the bandwagon effect on national election days when people on the West Coast who observe the early polling data and voting trends on the East Coast to arrive at a decision for their own vote. If one candidate seems to be carrying weight in numbers, people may choose to ‘jump on the bandwagon’ with other voters, believing that their vote will be more significant if they vote along with the prevailing contender.

While this bandwagon effect can have a significant effect on an election, it can show people up to be fickle, too. When information which is often inaccurate changes, the bandwagon can also lose riders. For this reason, the word ‘fragile’ often pops up in the discussion of this common cognitive bias. The new catch phrase, ‘fear of missing out’ with the acronym of FOMO can also play into this bias when there is a strong social element with lots of excitement and anxiety attached to a popular belief or a choice. Rather than expanding choice, FOMO actually limits choice and free thought by making only one choice acceptable among peers.

Doing your own research and avoiding “fake news” or news as entertainment can help decrease the likelihood of falling for the bandwagon effect. Honestly studying as much as you can about an issue or a candidate (or a point of theology) to broaden the base of knowledge from which you draw upon to decide your opinion on a matter helps. While any human being can turn into a wildcard by choosing a course of action or offering an opinion that is unexpected, thinking through matters for yourself helps diminish the power of the bandwagon.

Remember that conformity is often overrated. When we use it as a shortcut to save us time and energy, we run the risk of adopting opinions with which we really don’t concur. After exiting a high demand religious system, making such choices without relying on leadership in the group or even in any social group becomes a rite of passage of healing. Making your own decisions for the reasons you believe helps to set you free and sets you apart from the old group norm.

Further Reading:

Cynthia Mullen Kunsman is a nurse (BSN), naturopath (ND) and seminary graduate (MMin) with a wide variety of training and over 20 years of clinical experience. She has used her training in Complementary and Alternative Medicine as a lecturer and liaison to professional scientific and medical groups, in both academic and traditional clinical healthcare settings. She also completed additional studies in the field of thought reform, hypnotherapy for pain management, and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) that is often associated with cultic group involvement. Her nursing experience ranges from intensive care, the training of critical care nurses, hospice care, case management and quality management, though she currently limits her practice to forensic medical record review and evaluation. Most of her current professional efforts concern the study of manipulative and coercive evangelical Christian groups and the recovery process from both thought reform and PTSD.

She blogs at Under Much Grace and Redeeming Dinah.

Read more by Cindy Kunsman

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  • I forgot the “everybody’s doin’ it” graphic I made a couple of years ago.

  • SAO

    Just hearing stuff over and over, particularly if you aren’t paying attention makes you associate that thought with the fact or person. When I finally looked into what happened in Benghazi, I was surprised by how few facts pointed to Hillary making a mistake or having bad judgement and how many said it was just a bad set of circumstances. Equally, I’d heard about Paul Ryan being a serious budget guy for a few years, but when he joined the Romney campaign and his ideas got more press coverage, I was shocked by the degree his budget ideas relied of finding savings later or reducing unidentified waste. In short, like balancing your budget assuming you’ll find a few Benjamins under the sofa cushions. Not serious at all.

    In short, pay attention to tags given to candidates and see if they are true before you vote on the basis of them.

  • Brian Curtis

    I’m having trouble aligning the message of this column–avoiding the bandwagon, thinking critically–with the author’s note that says she’s a “naturopath” with experience in Complementary and Alternative Medicine (i.e., quackery). In addition, “do your own research” often involves laypeople thinking they know better than experts after a few minutes’ Googling. So… yeah, it sounds good, but facts are facts, and expertise really does matter.

  • That’s why I made no money and taught continuing education to toxicologists or was used as something as a liaison in several workplace settings. No one wanted information about health and nutrition. They expected me to sell a panacea. It was all part of working through what was allowed by my cult of choice. I was still in the Gothard church when I earned the degree and finished my internship while and after I left.

    My primary resource was Drug Facts and Comparisons guide to herbal products, Goodnan and Gilman, and Jemes Duke’s professional writings. I also collaborated on some research projects and some case studies with the then American Registry of Pathologists. I’ve worked a little with local poison control centers in case investigations, too.

  • Saraquill

    I still remember one of my exes telling me “It’s good you don’t care what other people think, but you should!”

    He also styled himself as the smart one of the two of us.

  • II just started writing the Big Lie post which follows a few that are already in queue. They are all varieties of or subfallacies of errors in attribution. Some draw on multiple types of rules of thumb (heuristics) that overlap with one another. For years, I keep coming back to Robert Lifton’s statement that thought reform results from a complicated admixture of fallacies and logical leaps.

    In politics, we have the labels and tags for political candidates. In Christianity, we have the Christianese and the thought-stopping caused when the term of ‘biblical’ is slapped on everything from soup to nuts. Even when we find a source whose views were learned to trust, if we consign out trust over to them, we risk sharing in their errors. That actually happened to me as Thenony bent and bowed to the Patriarchy movement when it started bringing in money. My blogging started because American Vision started published more advertisements for Vision Forum that they did their own material. After Y2K, they all shifted from seeming more mainstream into open fringe, too.

  • The other problem that quickly emerged for me was running the risk of practicing medicine. As a nurse, I can assess and teach, but I can’t diagnose or treat (prescribe anything that is outside the realm of general health and nursing). I planned to teach people about good health, but everyone expected me to prescribe some panacea for them, complete with dosages. My plan was to sell more books than supplements that the client would choose of their own free will. No one wanted that, and I wasn’t wiling to give them any cause for moral disengagement (the illusion that you bear no responsibility in an action if you merely do what you’re told).

  • Oh, and I just can’t resist. If my views on crtical thinking are to be dissmissed because I’ve studied naturopathy, this is the fallacy of argumentum ad hominem, along the lines of the subfallacy of the red herring, or perhaps the genetic fallacy. You don’t have to demnostrate anything to support the premise that I cannot exercise critical thought if you can draw the audience away from the discussion with some unrelated premise.

    Actually, some classify this as an ad hominem circumstancial fallacy. It’s another way of saying that my circumstances argue against my right to have a platform in this discuassion. Consider that because I have “been through the mill” of wishful thinking on many levels and did not capitulate to the lowest common denominator of error in Natural Health, I’m actually more qualified to offer an opinon than someone without that experience.