Home > Cognitive Bias, Decision Making, Memory > Hop on the Bandwagon: Examining the Cognitive Processes Behind Why You Simply MUST Have That

Hop on the Bandwagon: Examining the Cognitive Processes Behind Why You Simply MUST Have That


Walking around Colby College campus on a rainy day, one often sees a  dizzying number of Hunter rain boots and Timberland boots. It seems that everyone is wearing the same style of boots. Why are these boots so popular? Who started wearing them? Why are these boots everywhere? In his book, The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell examines social epidemics, such as fashion trends and smoking, and the moment they take off. It’s an excellent read that strives to explain how seemingly sudden social epidemics start and are sustained. While Gladwell never explicitly uses the term ‘bandwagon effect’, his case studies in the book concerning fashion trends hint at this phenomenon.

Originally defined by economist Harvey Leibenstein, the bandwagon effect refers to people’s tendency to buy an object to conform to the majority. The demand for the object increases as people increasingly consume it. Indeed, individuals use this object to fit in with the people they want to associate with or to appear to be stylish.


In 1950, Leibenstein explored this phenomenon of people observing others consume a product. Individuals respond to external pressure, especially pressure from peers because we all crave approval from others. When we view others engaging in a certain behavior (such as consuming an object or voting one way or another), we feel the drive to join the majority. Thus the product gains value through people buying it. There is an impressive amount of research on the bandwagon effect done by economists. These studies tend to focus on how the information of others’ consumption of the object influences the demand of the object. For example, Corneo and Jeanne (1997) apply Akerlof’s theory of social custom to social norms that in turn give rise to the bandwagon effect. The theory of social custom states that people worry about their status and that social practices determine how valuable a behavior is (Corneo & Jeanne, 1997). A social practice arises from enough of the population investing or engaging in a behavior for long enough time. Similarly, Corneo and Jeanne explain that consumption norms (norms that create consumer behaviors that have a reputational value) also develop from people investing in a product. The reputational value of an object refers to the non-monetary capital the object generates, such as respect or popularity. Supply and demand determine consumption. One friend shows up to class one day wearing an unusual looking bracelet. You ask him about it and he explains the white bead contains water from Mount Everest, while the black bead holds mud from The Dead Sea. Others in the class hear the explanation. One person adds that her cousin was part of that start up. Another classmate appreciatively adds that the company is committed to donating to charities with each purchased bracelet. You have just been included into a network through which information about the product permeates a population. Here is one part of the equation, we can see simply by word of mouth, the demand for the object increases. The spreading of information is important, but individuals still need to actually buy the product. What causes one to invest in a product? I myself have certainly felt the pressure to conform and buy what ever the hottest trend is at the moment, but why?



Overall, research suggest that it is often the symbol of the product rather than the product itself that attracts consumers. A 2012 study by Kastanakis and Balabanis examined the psychological factors that influence the consumer’s probability in engaging in the bandwagon effect. Some people have a strong desire to improve one’s image through products and willingness to conform. Further, these people might be predisposed to want to acquire a high social status through association with the right group by using the appropriate products. While other people have a strong need to be different from everyone else through consumer goods. Simply put, if one is highly susceptible to peer pressure and highly driven to use material objects as status symbols, but not overly concerned with standing out, then that person is more likely to engage in bandwagon behaviors. Dipping into social psychology, Kastanakis and Balabanis (2012) introduce the influence of self-concept (an individual’s thoughts about himself as a person) on product consumption. We all have a self-image that accompanies our self-concept. We all have that one friend (acquaintance?) that always has the newest or flashiest accessories. He practically begs you to compliment them and recognize how trendy he is. Well, now you know why he acts this way—he’s incredibly sensitive to normative pressures and is very status seeking. He ties his self-image to the objects he buys. The more expensive and popular the items, the better he thinks he appears to society.  Doesn’t sound like you? Some people are more personally oriented in their consumption (their concept of the self is independent and autonomous so they do not feel the need to be validated by others), while others are socially oriented (their self-concept is interdependent and they care about how their image appears to the rest of society) (Markus & Kitayama, 1991)—if vintage baseball caps are in, then socially oriented people will buy a lot of vintage caps in order to feel accepted. Think back to that flashy friend, that person has a tendency to want to improve his status through buying specific products that have symbolic meaning (Bearden, Netemeyer, and Teel (1989) would say your friend engages in status consumption. However, what cognitive processes drive such conformity? When we have contradictory beliefs about an idea, we often get a weird feeling in our stomach. We have beliefs about how we should act, but then we behave in a different way which leaves us with the yucky feeling of cognitive dissonance. We do not like that discomfort, so in order to reduce it, we change our behavior or beliefs.  In terms of our example of consumer behavior, when faced with buying something really expensive, most of us would try to stay within our budget, but this time, we simply. Must. Have. It. We’ll buy this one product and we promise not to buy anything else for the rest of the month…ah, that makes our purchase acceptable.

You may be thinking, “but Mahal, there must be more cognitive processes behind this behavior!”  You are so right! Every day we make decisions. These range from small (what should I eat for lunch?) to big (should I buy a new TV?). Think about the last time you made a big decision. How did you decide what to do? In cognitive psychology, there is a general model of decision making proposed by Galeotti (2002). There are five stages: setting goals, gathering information, structuring the decision, making your final choice, and evaluating. Goals are defined as the mental representations of the ideal state of affairs. Usually when there is a discrepancy between our reality and our desired reality, we set a goal and start the process of attaining that goal. You see that everyone around you has Hunter boots, yet you do not own a pair. Should you buy some? You should first gather some information about this product. Maybe you talk to your friends who have a pair. Once you have gathered some information about the cost or durability, you start to structure your decision, perhaps you decide to make a list of pros and cons (they’re expensive, but perhaps the social reputational value outweighs that for you). Finally, you have to make the choice. What are you going to rely on to make your choice? Ideally, you would rely on all the information you have about Hunter Boots (are they environmentally conscious? Do they treat their workers fairly? How long do they last? What colors do they come in?), but think about how much time it would take to make decisions if we based our choices on all the information available. We would never get anything done! Moreover, we do not even have access to all the information surrounding an object. Our working memory is the amount of information that you can hold onto during conscious awareness, which is only about four items. Even if you read all about the product and its company, you would not be able to attend to, store, or recall the vast amount of information.  Instead, we often rely on shortcuts to make our choices in situations where there is a plethora of information. One pertinent shortcut is the availability bias which states that we often have biases in our reasoning because we rely on examples that are easily brought to mind when making judgements and solving problems. Perhaps you are more inclined to buy Hunter Boots over a less popular brand of rain boots because you see that everyone and their grandma has a pair (do not worry, I’m not picking on Hunter Boots, I own a pair of these lovely wellies myself). Memory is an integral part of our lives. Recent and frequent experiences create memories and the more memories you have of an experience, the more easily you can access those experiences. When you go to think about rain boots, you immediately think of Hunter Boots because you’ve had so many experiences with them (your friend owns a pair, you saw a group of girls all with Hunter Boots splashing in a puddle yesterday, the company is advertising a sale online…the experiences could be endless).  Each time we have an experience or an encounter, we lay a memory trace down. The more and more we have of that experience, the more plentiful the memory traces, which increases availability.  OK, so you decide to buy a pair. Now, you have to evaluate your decision—are you happy with this purchase?  Our past decisions impact future decisions. We must interpret and evaluate our choices so that next time we can make better judgments based off of prior experiences stored in our memory.



Isn’t it interesting that many, if not all of us, hop on the bandwagon? This cognitive bias does not only apply to consumption behavior. Along with a high prevalence of economic research, there is a lot of research on how the bandwagon effect influence people’s voting behavior. I want to urge everyone not to rely too heavily on the availability bias. While using this mental shortcut is fast and tempting because we often lack the time and resources to fully investigate our options, it often leads us to make inaccurate assessments. People think that if information comes to mind easily, then that information is more important and is an accurate representation of the world. But our memories are susceptible to errors and we often change our memories by integrating new information to the memory. Humans are not perfect and sometimes we need a little help. But relying too much on mental shortcuts can be harmful and inaccurate, so I urge us all to put a little more effort into making decisions.




W.O. Bearden, R.G. Netemeyer, J.E. Teel

Measurement of consumer susceptibility to interpersonal influence

Journal of Consumer Research, 15 (4) (1989), pp. 473-481

Corneo, G., & Jeanne, O. (1997). Snobs, bandwagons, and the origin of social customs in consumer behavior. Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, 32(3), 333-347. doi:


Gladwell, M. (2015). The tipping point: how little things can make a big difference. London: Abacus.

Kastanakis, M. N., & Balabanis, G. (2012). Between the mass and the class: Antecedents of the “bandwagon” luxury consumption behavior. Journal of Business Research, 65(10), 1399-1407. doi:10.1016/j.jbusres.2011.10.005

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Markus, H. R., & Kitayama, S. (1991). Culture and the self: Implications for cognition, emotion, and motivation. Psychological Review, 98(2), 224-253. doi:10.1037//0033-295x.98.2.224

Rosenberg, M. (1979). Conceiving the self. New York: Basic Books.



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