The bandwagon effect is an observed social behavior in which people tend to go along with what others do or think without considering their actions. The likelihood of this is greatly increased as more and more people adopt an idea or behavior; this has led to the pejorative description “herd effect” in reference to this interesting behavioral phenomenon. It can be seen at almost all levels of human interaction, and being aware of its influence may help individuals make calculated decisions that are based on their beliefs and values rather than the temptation to go along with a group.
Social psychologists consider the bandwagon effect to be one among a large group of cognitive biases. A cognitive bias is a behavior that is based on memory, statistical, and social attribution errors. This particular behavior is reinforced by a number of other cognitive biases and psychological phenomena. When people all decide to join a social networking site or listen to the same musical group, these are classic examples of this effect.
This phenomenon is named for the political term “jumping on the bandwagon,” which refers to the tendency of voters to align themselves with the largest and most successful campaign. As more and more voters express support for a candidate or measure, the group grows exponentially larger. The “bandwagon” in “jump on the bandwagon” was a literal wagon that was used by a political candidate in the 1800s on a promotional tour.
Depending on the circumstances, this effect can be benign or quite harmful. It is especially harmful when it comes to ideals and ethics; it only takes a small member of determined people to promote ideas that can be harmful in a society. For example, a handful of people might promote hateful racial generalizations that spread to the rest of a culture through the bandwagon effect, leading to discrimination against members of that race. Once a bandwagon gets rolling, so to speak, it can be hard to undo the damage that has been done.
In the business world, the bandwagon effect can be very dangerous. Members of a company's development team, for example, might fail to see the flaws in a project because they want to support members of the group, in a related concept called groupthink. The effect can also lead to sudden explosion of similar products that ultimately crowd the market, causing customer interest to peter out and leaving companies high and dry.