You've definitely seen a mob mentality at play at some point in your life. (Why does everyone love kale now? Wasn't it once an inedible garnish?) But this bandwagon effect is bigger than your friends suddenly becoming Chicago Cubs fans after the 2016 World Series — it's a psychological phenomenon that's at play in everything from fashion trends to investment decisions.

All Aboard!

The bandwagon effect has its roots in politics. The idiom actually comes from the 1848 U.S. presidential election, when people literally jumped on a bandwagon to parade through town in support of the Whig Party's presidential candidate, Zachary Taylor. These days, the phrase usually refers to someone who supports the popular political candidate regardless of their own beliefs. And, guess what? A 2015 study by researchers at the University of Munich shows that it might happen more than you'd think.

In the study, 765 participants were shown a fictitious political campaign for a mayoral election in a small German town. They were given a fake history of both candidates, including whether or not they had won previous elections. Then, the volunteers were split into three groups. The first group was shown a poll where one candidate was losing by a large margin, and the second group was shown that he was winning by a lot. The third group wasn't presented with a poll.

The results should make you think twice the next time you read a poll. Not only did large margins affect votes, but participants were even more likely to consider a candidate as more competent if they thought he was winning. If a candidate has fared well in previous elections, or they seem to have majority support on polls, uncommitted voters are likely to hop on board. Nobody wants to be on the losing side, right? (Go Cubs!)

We're With Them

In terms of consumer behavior, it's the bandwagon effect that has people clamoring for the latest Apple products ... whether they need them or not. One day you're happy with your iPhone, and the next day you'd trade your first born for a faster processor. It affects the economy, too. As Investopedia points out, "During the dotcom bubble of the late 1990s, dozens of tech startups emerged that had no viable business plans, no products or services ready to bring to market, and in many cases nothing more than a name (usually something tech-sounding with "com" or "net" as a suffix). Despite lacking in vision and scope, these companies attracted millions of investment dollars in large part due to the bandwagon effect."

So how do you avoid it? Knowing you're susceptible is the first step. The next time you're making a decision, stop and think: Are you doing this because you want to, or because it's popular?

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Learn more ways your brain betrays you in "You Are Not So Smart: Why You Have Too Many Friends on Facebook, Why Your Memory Is Mostly Fiction, and 46 Other Ways You're Deluding Yourself" by David McRaney. The audiobook is free with an Audible trial. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Ashley Hamer May 23, 2017

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