The bandwagon effect is a phenomenon of public opinion impinging upon itself: in their political preferences people tend to follow what they perceive to be majorities in society. This implies that success breeds further success, and alternatives that appear to enjoy a broad popular backing are likely to gain even more support. The effect’s metaphorical label dates from late nineteenth-century American politics and alludes to the wagon in a parade that carries the band, and thus attracts a large audience of followers who join in to enjoy the music.
The bandwagon effect is one of several hypothesized manifestations of “impersonal influence” – effects on individuals’ attitudes, beliefs, or behaviors that derive from these persons’ impressions about the attitudes, beliefs, or behaviors of collectives of anonymous others outside the realm of their personal contacts (Mutz 1998). Other examples are the “underdog effect,” complementing the bandwagon effect by assuming a negative impact of perceived majority opinion, and the notion of “strategic” or “tactical” voting, which expects electors to refrain from choosing their candidate or party of first preference if they perceive it to be only weakly supported by others, in order not to waste their vote.
The bandwagon effect manifests itself in various forms. At elections, voters may choose parties or candidates because they expect them to win. The same happens in referenda, when perceptions of majority support help certain proposals gain additional votes. Perceived opinion distributions within the mass public can also lead to changes of attitudes. Election studies suffer from bandwagon effects, when in post-election surveys respondents claim to have chosen the winner although they did not actually do so. Parties and candidates try to capitalize on the bandwagon effect during election campaigns when they seek to convey the impression that they are highly popular among voters.
The media are the main source of information on preference distributions among the citizenry at large (Mutz 1998). Published findings from public opinion polls are an important type of such mass feedback, although not the only one. Due to the pervasive trend toward “horse-race journalism” the question of who is ahead and who is trailing behind is ascribed high news value in modern election coverage. Accordingly, journalists and politicians have also become key sources of mediated statements about the mass public’s political sympathies. Stylistic devices like exemplars or man-in-the-street interviews help journalists to convey impressions of where the public stands regarding candidates, parties, or issues.
As reporting on public opinion is thus a multifaceted phenomenon, the quality of the information on which citizens base their impressions is critically relevant. Many studies indicate that media audiences are not sufficiently capable to distinguish between sources of valid information, such as well-conducted polls, and sources of dubious significance. They may thus fall victim to “pluralistic ignorance,” deriving preferences from impressions about the opinions of their fellow citizens that are actually wrong. People’s impressions of majorities and minorities are also often biased through projection. The “false consensus” or “looking-glass” effect distorts perceptions of mass opinion and may lead people to assume that their own positions enjoy far broader public support than is actually the case. However, for elections it has been shown that the power of “wishful thinking” tends to recede as polling day draws nearer.
Although the notion of the bandwagon effect has fascinated social scientists for decades, empirically it has proven elusive. Only in recent years have carefully designed studies succeeded in demonstrating that the bandwagon effect really exists, both with regard to vote choices at elections and referenda, and with regard to issue attitudes. Its theoretical background has also only recently come to be better understood, mostly due to careful studies by Mutz (1994, 1998). Bandwagon effects typically occur under conditions of weak commitment on the part of voters, and a shortage of information other than the distribution of mass support. Hence, American primary elections where voters have to choose between mostly unknown candidates that all run for the same party (Bartels 1988), or referenda about complicated issues (West 1991), appear more conducive to bandwagon effects than do general elections.
How bandwagon effects are triggered depends on citizens’ political involvement. Politically detached people tend to rely on the “consensus heuristic.” Like consumers who need a new car but lack the expertise to judge which one is best, they take majority opinion as a proxy for the most intelligent choice, thus becoming able to form a preference without collecting any detailed information. Among more involved citizens, perceived majorities may trigger a “cognitive response mechanism”. They think about reasons why so many others may have come to support a particular alternative, and thus persuade themselves to jump on the bandwagon. Empirically and conceptually, these hypotheses are better supported than other strands of theorizing, like the idea that going with the winner is somehow intrinsically rewarding, or the assumption that bandwagon effects are mainly a result of conformity for fear of isolation.
- Bartels, L. M. (1988). Presidential primaries and the dynamics of public choice. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
- Mutz, D. C. (1994). The political effects of perceptions of mass opinion. In M. X. Delli Carpini, L. Huddy, & R. Y. Shapiro (eds.), Research in micropolitics, vol. 4. Greenwich: JAI, pp. 153 –167.
- Mutz, D. C. (1998). Impersonal influence: How perceptions of mass collectives affect political attitudes. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Nadeau, R., Cloutier, E., & Guay, J.-H. (1993). New evidence about the existence of a bandwagon effect in the opinion formation process. International Political Science Review, 14(2), 203 –213.
- Nadeau, R., Niemi, R. G., & Amato, T. (1994). Expectations and preferences in British general elections. American Political Science Review, 88(2), 371–383.
- Simon, H. A. (1954). Bandwagon and underdog effects and the possibility of election predictions. Public Opinion Quarterly, 18, 245 –253.
- West, D. M. (1991). Polling effects in election campaigns. Political Behavior, 13(2), 151–163.