What’s a bandwagon, and why is everyone jumping on it? The answer involves the circus, Theodore Roosevelt, and cognitive biases.
The phrase “to jump on the bandwagon” means to join the most popular side or party or to go along with something that is growing in popularity. But today, there is generally no wagon in sight.
The Original Bandwagons
The word bandwagon dates back to the late 1840s and originally referred to a large, ornate wagon that carried the band in a circus procession. P.T. Barnum, the famous circus owner and “greatest showman,” recorded, “At Vicksburg we sold all our land conveyances excepting our horses and the ‘band wagon’”—one of the first printed references to such an attraction. Barnum’s circus put on parades through the towns they performed before they set up their show. These spectacles were made grander by bright wagons engraved with circus animals that held the performing musicians. It was a publicity stunt, and an effective one, too.
Barnum’s circus was not the only one on the bandwagon. An 1847 Louisiana newspaper described “a magnificent band-wagon, capable of holding twenty musicians” belonging to Messrs Stone and McCollum’s Circus.
Bandwagons began to be used in parades during other celebrations and political processions, especially for the Fourth of July. In the late 1800s, politicians caught on to the publicity potential as well, and they began using bandwagons in parades on the campaign trail.
When a campaign began to generate steam, other politicians and aspiring leaders rented seats on the bandwagon and rode through town in hopes of gaining an association with the successful candidate.
Riding “under the bandwagon” was a mark of favor and popularity, a must for any budding politician to get exposure among their future constituents.
The Bandwagon as a Metaphor
In 1884, the Woodstock Sentinel of Illinois published an article called “Anything to Beat Hamilton,” an interview about political tactics used by candidates to beat out incumbent Governor John Marshall Hamilton. The article reported:
The principal candidates for attorney general are Geo. Hunt, of Paris, Ill., and the present incumbent. I understand that Hunt is running under the wing of Oglesby. If so, he’ll beat McCartney, provided the latter allows Hunt to load him into the Hamilton band-wagon.”
“It is very evident, Judge, that you consider that any man who goes into Hamilton’s band-wagon is liable to get left.”
This is the earliest known reference that took the idea of riding in a politician’s bandwagon beyond the physical act. The bandwagon was now a metaphor for ingratiating or identifying oneself with a popular political figure in hopes that some of their success would rub off by association.
The metaphor would begin to take on a largely negative, opportunistic tone as well, in the vein of going along with the crowd and getting behind whoever was popular at the moment to raise one’s own status. As this article warned, jumping onto the bandwagon was not always the key to success—if that politician fell out of favor, so would everyone else parading along with them. Political speeches throughout the 1890s similarly warned voters not to jump on any candidate’s bandwagon too quickly.
In Theodore Roosevelt’s Letters, 1899, the future U.S. president generalized the phrase to refer to going along with anything that was popular, not just a political candidate: “When I once became sure of one majority they tumbled over each other to get aboard the band wagon.”
The Bandwagon Effect
The bandwagon effect is recognized as a cognitive bias whereby people tend to adopt certain behaviors or beliefs just because many other people are doing it. Marketers, propagandists, and political candidates all use the bandwagon effect to gain followers. “Everyone else is doing it, and so should you” is a tempting appeal for consumers and constituents alike. As Roosevelt observed, people will tumble over each other to avoid being left behind, to conform to group norms, to feel included and accepted.
Psychologists have proposed several different factors that play into the bandwagon effect. First, because social connection is key for human survival and well-being, we desperately want to feel like we belong as part of a group, so we often feel pressure to conform to an idea or trend that is popular among people we know. Second, the fear of missing out on something important is also a strong motivator for human behavior. Third, using group norms as a benchmark acts as a shortcut in the individual decision-making process. Finally, we all like to be on the winning side of things—and the person, idea, or behavior that is most likely to win is the one that is most popular. The bandwagon is reinforced through a positive feedback loop. This means that when more people are aware of or actively doing something (when more people jump on the bandwagon), other people are more likely to accept it and jump on the bandwagon as well.
The dark side of the bandwagon effect is when the group norms are questionable from an ethical or moral standpoint. The bandwagon has much potential for good—such as in developing positive views toward populations that were historically marginalized in society—but it can also contribute to the growth of extreme or dangerous social and political movements. The pressure to conform can also confine individual expression and lead to feelings of exclusion for those who do not jump on the bandwagon. It can be difficult to hold out on something one believes to be wrong when it seems like everyone else is doing it; however, the truth is that rarely is everyone else doing it. Your brain’s perception that everyone around you is participating in a belief or behavior you deem unconscionable could be a result of a cognitive bias, and media portrayals may play into this bias by showing a distorted view of reality.
In the digital age, the potential to exploit the bandwagon appeal is magnified by social media platforms. If an influencer has tens of thousands of followers, you might assume that they have something important to say or that people you know are benefiting from their content or product recommendations. Propagandists use bots and other fake accounts to build a large following and convince real users that everyone else is following them, so they must be legitimate.
Additionally, mass media and social media can create a false perception of public opinion about a given practice or issue. Those who make decisions about what content to promote to a large audience may choose to frame extreme, biased, or obscure ideas in a way that asserts that “everyone” believes this—and so should you! Those who influence the audience’s perception can then, in fact, induce a bandwagon effect.
The reverse bandwagon effect occurs when people avoid doing something because they perceive it as being popular, and they do not want to do it because everyone else is doing it. For the contrarians among us, just know that you are still under the influence of a cognitive bias that influences the way you act!
From cheering for sports teams to playing the stock market, from fashion trends to human rights, the bandwagon effect can be seen in just about every area of society. None of us are immune to this bias. However, when we are aware of our cognitive biases, we can be better prepared to make decisions that are consistent with who we are rather than what we perceive others are doing.
“Anything to Beat Hamilton.” Woodstock Sentinel, February 14, 1884.
“Bandwagon.” Online Etymology Dictionary. https://www.etymonline.com/word/bandwagon#etymonline_v_260.
Delwiche, Aaron. “Bandwagon.” The Propaganda Critic, August 8, 2018. https://propagandacritic.com/index.php/how-to-decode-propaganda/bandwagon/.
Tréguer, Pascal. “Origin of ‘to Jump on the Bandwagon.’” Word Histories, January 22, 2018. https://wordhistories.net/2018/01/22/jump-bandwagon-origin/.
The Decision Lab. “Why Do We Support Opinions as They Become More Popular? Retrieved June 27, 2021, from https://thedecisionlab.com/biases/bandwagon-effect/.
Upton, Emily. “The Origin of the Phrase ‘Jump on the Bandwagon.’” Today I Found Out, April 24, 2014. http://www.todayifoundout.com/index.php/2014/04/origin-phrase-jump-bandwagon/.
Cover image by Freekee, July 21, 2009, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.