The ABCs of Cognitive Bias: B is for Bandwagon Effect

The bandwagon effect is the psychological tendency to adopt certain behaviors or attitudes because other people are doing it. The more people that behave a certain way, the greater the potential for the bandwagon effect.

Cognitive biases are systematic patterns in thinking that occur when people are processing and interpreting information in the world around them. This series dives into the ABCs of cognitive bias and how they can be applied to UX design. You can check out our launch series article, A is for Anchoring Bias.

Ready to hop on the bandwagon?

What is the bandwagon effect? 

On June 28, 2021, I noticed a surge of Venmo posts on my friends’ Instagram stories. After 10 seconds of solid research by visiting Venmo’s profile, I learned that they were doing a giveaway of $100,000 in $500 increments. Wow! Free money and on top of that, some of my friends were posting screenshots of Venmo transactions. I told myself, “Okay, this is totally legit and I could use some free no-commitment contest money, let me jump on this wagon before they announce winners”.

Back to reality. The next day, after realizing I didn’t win free money, I thought about this whole experience. Almost all my friends on Instagram were participating in this free contest. $100,000 in $500 increments meant that there would only be 100 winners of Venmo’s 70 million active users… I didn’t even have a 1% chance at this contest while Venmo was able to get tons of free marketing from every Instagram (and Twitter) user who reposted their contest! 

The saying “jumping on the bandwagon” was first recorded in the mid-1800s in relation to a wagon that carried a circus band. Now, it just means to do the popular or “hip” thing. Generally speaking, we’re influenced by other people’s choices.  This is classic “monkey see monkey do.” To cut down on the cognitive load of making decisions, we trust other people – the OG way of “crowdsourcing knowledge” – to help us decide. 

What does bandwagon effect look like in UX?

Social proof

The easiest and most common way to leverage the bandwagon effect is to literally say how many other people are using your product. Here’s an example from Proof:

Social proof example from…Proof ;)

To expand on this, it’s not just the sheer number of people who use your product…but what type of people. It’s a popular marketing technique to show brands associated with your brand.

Here’s an example of Zeplin leveraging brand recognition—communicating that if these great companies use Zeplin, then you should probably too ;)  

Example from Zeplin

They also have a counter which shows users who have exported Figma, Sketch, and Adobe XD designs to Zeplin for development and collaboration in the past 30 days. This is pretty neat and enticing for new UX’ers looking to learn some new tools because they can see some big names and the impact of learning the tool (winkwink). 

The Bandwagon effect in eCommerce reviews

92% of shoppers look for real testimonials before making a purchase. This has practical as well as psychological reasons. Reviews are a form of user-generated content (UGC) that can help fill in the gaps of missing information, like whether a piece of clothing is “true to size.” 

But we also use other people to benchmark against. Often,  people prefer information from other “real” customers compared to only relying on what a brand wants to sell you. If there’s another customer who is similar to us (e.g. same shoe size) or has the same demands (e.g. is this tent good for music festivals?), then we find power in the personal experience. 

Example from Wayfair

When the bandwagon effect backfires 

While the bandwagon effect may be leveraged to help eCommerce companies gain more trust and sell more goods, sometimes the tactics can go overboard. This results in a cost to the user experience. 

Confirmshaming is perhaps the most egregious take on the bandwagon effect. Instead of simply saying “no,” to an offer, a brand polarizes between you and the “cool kids.” Here’s one example: “No thanks, I REALLY hate saving money.” 

Here are other potential downsides of the bandwagon effect:

  • Affects rational thinking: Amazon has been known to have problems where reviewers were incentivized to write good reviews despite a product being terrible. This leads to disappointment when products fail to live up to the promise.
  • Jumping to conclusions: When a user sees a negative review, they might jump to conclusions of a product being bad despite good star ratings because it triggered a bad experience they’ve had in the past.
  • Too good to be true: If reviews are superficial and don’t provide more info, that can take away from the legitimacy of a product. Sometimes a series of good reviews broken up by an honest critique can go a long way to set realistic expectations. 

Another associated phenomenon of the bandwagon effect is fear of exclusion or “fear of missing out (FOMO)”. People generally don’t want to be the odd one out so they feel like it’d be better to follow groupthink which would ensure inclusion and social acceptance. 

Summing it Up

The bandwagon effect relies on the number of people who support (or don’t support) something whether it be a product, political stance, movement, etc. The more supporters there are, the higher the chance that others will be influenced by the cause. 

Despite being seen as a negative effect, UX designers can carefully use it to better inform user decisions. Just remember, it’s okay to have your own ideas too!


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