The Bandwagon Effect

What is it?

The “bandwagon effect” is the practice of making a decision purely based on what the people around us are doing. There are a number of other terms for this such as “herd mentality” or “peer pressure”, but they all have the same cause- the consensus of the people around us. 

We have likely all felt this pressure at some point in our lives, and we have to wonder why this phenomenon is so widely felt. 

On a psychological level, humans are wired to be members of a group. We like to have relationships with other people and we want to belong. It’s uncomfortable to feel like an outsider, so we adapt our behaviour to feel like part of the group. 

Our brain is also wired to work quickly, so it creates shortcuts. One of these decision-making shortcuts is looking at what the people around us are doing. We see this all around us. We match the speed we drive to the traffic around us. We applaud when everyone else applauds. We laugh when other people laugh (even if we didn’t necessarily understand the joke). 

This can have good or bad effects. Sometimes, it eliminates the need for endless research and makes our decisions easier. But other times, it can pressure us into making a decision that we should do research on and consider more carefully. 

It always seems like the bandwagon is moving so fast that if we don’t jump on immediately, we’re going to miss out. However, bandwagons usually end in one of two ways: it was a good idea and continues steadily on, in which case it’s easy to catch up to and hop on. Or, it crashes, in which case we didn’t want to be on it anyway. 

In general, the best practice is to consider carefully which wagons we jump on. Because some of them aren’t headed the way we thought they were. 

Where It Shows Up

The number of factors in making even a simple decision can seem overwhelming. It can be hard to know what the right choice is, and it’s even harder to think when under pressure. The Bandwagon Effect can have a large impact on that process.

The Bandwagon Effect serves as a sort of decision-making shortcut in our heads. Rather than having to consider the many factors in the decision, we default to whatever the people around us are doing.  

In some cases, this can save us a lot of time and confusion. Like when we’re at an event with a lot of people and don’t know where to go, we simply follow the crowd. Or we’re in a new situation and don’t know what to do, we copy the people around us. 

It saves us from a good deal of stress and embarrassment. Or, at the very least, we won’t be feeling those things alone because everyone around us is doing the same thing. 

But this effect also has a dark side. Because it is so easy to go with the crowd, it is equally as hard to go against it. This shortcut already exists in our brains, and it is very hard to override. If we stop to think, or disagree with the group, we draw attention to ourselves. We may get the coaxing “come on” speeches that entice us to throw critical thinking out the window. 

As we all know, this can lead to some very poor decisions.  

This is especially troublesome in finance. Everyone’s financial situation and goals are unique so each person’s plan will look different. Applying a blanket approach to separate individuals spells disaster. But it doesn’t stop the advertising of “one size fits all” products that sound very enticing. 

Especially when we can watch the people around us profiting from these products, it makes us feel like we’re missing out on something, or worse, that we made the wrong decision, even if we didn’t. 

Going against the crowd feels bad, plain and simple. Even the most individualistic among us dislike being looked at sideways because we are somehow different than our peers. We want to belong, and that pressure extends to our decisions in a big way. 

It’s hard and it’s counterintuitive. But the best thing to do when it comes to serious decisions is to determine what our goals and objectives are before we get anywhere near the bandwagon. With those things in mind, it becomes much easier to back away if the bandwagon won’t get us to our destination. 

What to Do About It

The pressure of a crowd can be overwhelming. The number of voices telling us what to do can be very persuasive, especially if they’re all telling us the same thing. But, how can we be sure it’s the right thing? 

What are our goals and objectives? How do we determine what they are? 

As humans, we can be very good at lying to ourselves. We may say that we want to read more, but find ourselves turning on Netflix instead of opening that book. We may dream about a simple life in the country, but would be thoroughly bored if that ever came to pass. 

It is a struggle to separate the things we actually want from the things we think we should want. Pressure from family, friends, and general society can be so intense that we forget what we wanted for ourselves in the first place. 

Some say that we find our true passions in the things we get worked up about. But even that can be misleading. There are so many causes to care about and so many things we are told we should believe in, how do we know what we truly value? 

First, we should spend time alone, with our phones turned off. Without outside influence, what do we find ourselves dreaming about? And once we think we know what we want, put it to the test. The people that know us best are usually pretty good at determining if we’re lying to ourselves.  

If we walk up to our loved one and say “I want to be a surgeon!” and they say “but you faint when you see blood”, obviously we need to reevaluate our goals. 

The bandwagon has the potential to help or hurt us. Sometimes, complete strangers tell us what we should do, without knowing anything about us. Sometimes, even those close to us tell us what we should do without asking us what we want or need. 

I find it is when the bandwagon comes second that it is the most useful. After we have an idea of what our goals are, to then bring it to the people around us is a great test. If our loved ones wholeheartedly agree, we likely found a winner. If everyone around us tells us it’s a terrible idea, we should maybe reconsider. 

There are times when we have to go against the crowd to stand by our values. But for many decisions, utilizing outside opinions, without being swayed by them, is the key to making the right choice. 

That bandwagon might be headed the right way, but make sure it’s the way you want to go before you jump on.

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