If you need to buy a new phone, do you look up different models and brands and compare their specifications to find the best match for your needs… or do you buy what’s popular, expecting it to be the right choice? If you go by what’s popular so as not to get left behind, your brain has fallen prey to the bandwagon effect.
The bandwagon effect is named after an actual wheeled wagon that carried the circus band. In the mid-1800s, an entertainer named Dan Rice, who was a rival of infamous showman P.T. Barnum’s, invited a presidential candidate to campaign on his bandwagon. This paved the way for more bandwagons to be used as tools of political publicity and for the word itself to become tied to politics. Today, to jump on the bandwagon means to adopt an idea or a style because it has become popular and not necessarily because it is valid or good.
Humans are social animals, so it’s not surprising that we occasionally throw a finger in the air to feel which way the wind blows. We often hear a more rhetorical form of the bandwagon effect when we are asked to believe something is true because it is popular. Fad diets draw their appeal in part because of their sudden popularity. It is easy to use the majority popular opinion as a shortcut to the most intelligent decision. To be fair, this bandwagon effect has been reported as being “rather weak” when tested for in isolation and to be dependent on specific conditions, but it can influence some people’s voting behaviour, who will rely on the latest poll to vote for what promises to be a winning ticket.
Medical doctors are not immune to the appeal of the bandwagon. The removal of a child’s tonsils used to be very common when I was young, in part because this popular practice incited other doctors to adopt it, but its use has since been somewhat restricted to be more in line with the best evidence we have. Recently, we saw many hop onto the hydroxychloroquine bandwagon even though the evidence for its use against COVID-19 quickly melted away. Situations like these are complex and many factors play into them; but the allure of following colleagues and backing the right horse can’t be dismissed.
It’s important to point out that accepting the scientific consensus on a topic like evolution or germ theory is not an example of the bandwagon effect. Accepting an expert consensus is not deferring to what’s popular; rather it’s about trusting what multiple lines of evidence and stacks of rigorous studies are pointing to.
If you find yourself being seduced by the idea of going with the crowd, ask yourself if there are indeed good reasons to do so. Otherwise, you might just end up following the clown car out of town.