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Are you falling victim to the bandwagon effect?

Do you ever find yourself wondering what clothing to buy? What TV series or movie to watch? Or even where to eat? These are common dilemmas all of us run into on a daily basis. If you selected the movie or item that had the most stars or likes attributed to it or the majority of people chose it previously, then you may be falling victim to ‘the bandwagon effect’.

The ultimate decision – which one do you choose and why?

Everyday people are making decisions of various levels of importance, however few stop to seriously analyse and understand the underlying cognitive processes involved. Often decisions are influenced by a phenomenon called the ‘bandwagon effect’ whether this occurs consciously or unconsciously. Bandwagon effect is the idea that people align with or follow the opinions, beliefs and/or actions the majority of the population follows. An example of this phenomenon is illustrated in a study conducted by Sundar, Knobloch-Westerwick and Hastall (2007). When people were given a choice between reading an article recommended by a journalist, website or by crowd support, people were more inclined to choose the crowd option. This is despite the journalist being an acknowledged expert in the particular field. 

Did you pick it because of the number of stars?

There are entire industries built on the assumption of ‘the bandwagon effect’, like Yelp, Rotten Tomato, and Google Reviews. The twenty-first century reality of 24/7 access to portable technology allows consumers to seek extra help when making any decision. Two common ways this happens are by trawling the comment section on websites and looking at the number of stars other users have allotted. To further explore this idea Xu, Hao and Younbo (2016) conducted a study looking at the impact bandwagon cues have on individuals during the process of media content selection of Hollywood movies. Xu and colleagues (2016) decided to specifically look at quantitative and qualitative categories. The quantitative category referred to information such as number of hits, views, and downloads, while the qualitative category studied reviews and comments. The results of this study show that individuals want to watch movies with the highest qualitative and quantitative rankings, even when the movies are very similar. This demonstrates the presence of the bandwagon effect with people making decisions according to what others opinions are.

While there wasn’t a difference between the bandwagon effects of quantitative versus qualitative individually, there was a difference when other elements were involved. When participant’s cognitive loads were increased by having to do a distractor task while selecting a movie it leaves limited resources to focus on the movie information. In this study the distractor task was repeating a word over and over, but having a conversation with a friend could have a similar effect. Participants then resorted to heuristic processing, which is a nonlogical approach to form a decision instead of the more analytical process. Heuristic processing involves minimal effort in order to access information from prior knowledge broadly reflecting an automatic process (McBride & Cutting, 2015). The results demonstrate that when people are not able to carefully evaluate information, they are more inclined to rely on quantitative information such as the number of likes, instead of reviews and comments because it is a more automatic process. 

Other research suggests that bandwagon cues, which provide consensus that predecessors enjoyed the product, affect people’s judgements of websites or products making them more inclined to buy, watch, or experience a product. To test the effects of these bandwagon cues Kim and Gambino (2016) used the Modality-Agency-Interactivity-Navigability (MAIN) model. This model gave insight into people’s opinions of the websites and products as well as specifically providing information regarding the changes in users impressions after exposure to bandwagon cues. An online experiment, using a mock restaurant recommendation site that manipulated the number of stars the restaurants had was conducted. The findings demonstrated that bandwagon cues resulted in more positive perception and a higher likelihood of the participants visiting the restaurant. This is important to understand considering bandwagon cues, such as ratings and reviews similar to the ones on restaurant websites, are everywhere and it is important to know the extent of their influence. 

Are you making decisions based on the herd?

The affects of band wagoning outlined above are relatively harmless, however there are certain cases where the ‘bandwagon effect’ has a serious impact across society. For example the extent of influence the phenomenon has on the results of political elections. Elections of different scales are occurring all the time and typically the outcomes have an immense influence on society. Simon’s (1954) study specifically looks at if there are widely publicized election predictions will voters be more inclined to vote for the candidate who seems most likely to win according to the published poll data. Before candidate predication polls were published participants were asked who they were voting for. Once the polls were released participants were asked again and Simon tracked whether people’s votes changed according to who was predicted to win. The results of this study provided evidence for the ‘bandwagon effect’ suggesting that after polls are released people are more likely to support the predicted winning candidate.

Why does it matter if we are unknowingly falling victim to the bandwagon effect? Well it should be clear now that your small and large scale decisions are being influenced by outside opinions more than you may realise. Especially with the increasing immediate access of the greater populations judgements and beliefs it can be easy to slip into the habit of making decisions according to the best reviews or most likes. While this doesn’t mean you should analyse and overthink every day-to-day decision you make, you should be aware of how and why you are making certain decisions. So, when the time comes for you to make a decision of consequence I suggest ask yourself: “Am I falling victim to the bandwagon effect”.


Kim, J.,& Gambino, A. (2016). Do we trust the crowd or information system? Effects of personalization and bandwagon cues on users’ attitudes and behavioural intentions toward a restaurant recommendation website. Computers In Human Behavior, 65369-379. doi:10.1016/j.chb.2016.08.038

McBride, D. M., & Cutting, J. C. (2015). Cognitive psychology: Theory, process, and methodology. SAGE Publications.

Simon, H. (1954). Bandwagon and underdog effects and the possibility of election predictions. The Public Opinion Quarterly, 18(3), 245-253. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/2745982

Sundar, S. S., Knobloch-Westerwick, S. and Hastall, M. R. (2007), News cues: Information scent and cognitive heuristics. J. Am. Soc. Inf. Sci., 58: 366–378. doi:10.1002/asi.20511 http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/asi.20511/epdf

Xu, X., Hao, X., & Younbo, J. (2015). An information-procession model for audiences selections of movies quantitative versus qualitiative bandwagon effects. Journal of Media Psychology. Retrieved from http://psycnet.apa.org/journals/jmp/28/4/187.pdf&productCode=pa

  1. April 30th, 2017 at 13:54 | #1

    Great post; it reminded me of both social and cognitive psychology. At a basic level, the bandwagon effect undoubtedly plays on the fact that humans are social beings and need social belonging. In terms of cognitive principles, I wonder if recency and frequency of exposure to certain items is important here. You give the example of wondering what clothes to buy or what show to watch. Perhaps your friends had just discussed a great new TV show, so that’s one of the first items you remember (recency effect). Or, you’re thinking of buying a new pair of boots and the classic LL Bean boot comes to mind because you’ve seen it so frequently on Colby’s campus. After all, we can recall high frequency items better in a free recall task than low frequency items because they are easier to locate in memory due to the fact that their memory traces have been laid down numerous times. Another way to look at it: Treisman would say that a frequent item like the LL Bean boot is closer to the attentional threshold and thus more accessible.

  2. amswid20
    May 11th, 2017 at 23:32 | #2

    When you mention the reviews of products/locations on online sites, you mention that people will tend to choose the item that is highly recommended by the most people. But, those items also tend to be listed first on these sites, so I wonder if the tendency for people to choose the highest rated item is due to the bandwagon effect or more to the mere exposure effect- people are more inclined to like something they have more experience with more than something they have interacted less with.
    Although most people associate the bandwagon effect with negative outcomes, it does seem like it reduces the amount of cognitive resources necessary to make quick and accurate decisions. So, even though it may lead to uninformed and/or impulse decisions, it does allow us to use more resources on more difficult, important, and pressing issues.

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