In This Article Bandwagon Effect

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Major Texts
  • Early Disputes

Communication Bandwagon Effect
by
Rüdiger Schmitt-Beck
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 June 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756841-0113

Introduction

The term “bandwagon effect” denotes a phenomenon of public opinion impinging upon itself. Conceptually, it is somewhat ambiguous, so that definitions in the literature vary. Often, it is defined as a tendency of people to affiliate with the winning side of a competition. More generally, it can be defined as an inclination of persons to join in their preferences or behaviors what they perceive to be existing or emerging majorities or dominant positions in society. This implies that success breeds further success, and alternatives that appear to enjoy a broad popular backing are likely to gain even stronger support. Sometimes, it is correspondingly claimed that minorities or losing alternatives, because of their weakness, suffer further losses of support. In any case, the notion of bandwagon effects implies the idea that perceived public opinion exhibits the quality of a self-fulfilling prophecy. For public opinion perceptions, information conveyed by the mass media is crucial. Reporting on public opinion polls is the most important, but not the only, source of such impressions. The notion of the bandwagon effect started its scientific life as a rather vague idea without a well-developed theoretical basis. Accordingly, it lacked conceptual precision and proved empirically elusive. But a number of carefully designed studies have succeeded in demonstrating that bandwagon effects do exist. The theoretical background of bandwagon effects has only recently come to be better understood. Whether they emerge and how large they are is strongly contingent on personal and situational circumstances as well as attributes of the triggering messages. Bandwagon effects have been most intensely explored in politics. Some studies have also investigated their functioning in other areas of life, such as consumer behavior. 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 their personal contact sphere. Other examples of impersonal influence are the “underdog effect,” which complements the bandwagon effect by stating a positive impact of perceptions of failure or losing, and—with specific reference to elections—the notion of “strategic” voting, which expects voters to support a less attractive alternative at an election if they can thereby avoid “wasting” their vote.

General Overviews

All reviews that deal with the bandwagon effect discuss this phenomenon not exclusively, but alongside other manifestations of impersonal influence on citizens’ beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors. Although the bandwagon effect is usually covered rather prominently, these texts typically also address more encompassing notions like the underdog effect (as the bandwagon effect’s complement), as well as phenomena that are only relevant for electoral behavior, such as strategic voting and effects on turnout (mobilization and defeatism). At the same time, most of these texts restrict themselves to just one potential source of impersonal influence, namely public opinion polls published by the mass media. Donsbach 1984 and Lang and Lang 1984 are prominent examples of early review essays that seek to summarize the scattered evidence of their time in order to assess the relevance of polls for public opinion and political behavior. Against the backdrop of widespread public criticism of polls for their allegedly strong influence on citizens’ behavior at elections and other occasions, both texts conclude that the actual impact of polls is minuscule at best. Hardmeier 2008 and Moy and Rinke 2012 are the most comprehensive recent treatments of poll effects. Traugott 1992 and Hopmann 2010 are also useful, but focus more narrowly on electoral effects of polls. Hardmeier and Roth 2003 contributes important insights from a comparative point of view. This contribution critically discusses conceptual and methodological problems arising when trying to extend the study of bandwagon effects from elections in the American two-party system to multiparty systems where there is often no clear winner, as well as to referenda. Mutz 1994 stands out for the depth of its theoretical reflection, and also as the only broad treatment of impersonal influence that does not restrict itself to media polls as sources of such influence.

  • Donsbach, Wolfgang. 1984. Die Rolle der Demoskopie in der Wahlkampf-Kommunikation. Empirische und normative Aspekte der Hypothese über den Einfluß der Meinungsforschung auf die Wählermeinung. Zeitschrift für Politik 31.4 (December): 388–407.

    E-mail Citation »

    This early discussion of the state of research concludes that there is no evidence for electoral effects of media polls on voters. Selective exposure and the competition of polls with other sources of mediated statements about parties’ electoral strength are cited as reasons for this.

  • Hardmeier, Sibylle. 2008. The effects of published polls on citizens. In The SAGE handbook of public opinion research. Edited by Wolfgang Donsbach and Michael W. Traugott, 504–513. London: SAGE.

    DOI: 10.4135/9781848607910.n48E-mail Citation »

    This state-of-the-art review is based on a formal meta-analysis of extant research on poll effects. It has a strong focus on the bandwagon effect and concludes that it exists, but is weak and highly conditional. It also provides a brief discussion of theoretical approaches to explain bandwagon effects.

  • Hardmeier, Sibylle, and Hubert Roth. 2003. Die Erforschung der Wirkung politischer Meinungsumfragen: Lehren vom “Sonderfall” Schweiz. Politische Vierteljahresschrift 44.2 (June): 174–195.

    DOI: 10.1007/s11615-003-0037-9E-mail Citation »

    Reviewing methodological problems of research into poll effects, this paper proposes a more complex conceptual framework for addressing possible poll effects in multiparty systems. For referenda, on the other hand, the simple distinction of bandwagon and underdog effects is seen as sufficient, due to the binary structuration of their choice alternatives.

  • Hopmann, David N. 2010. Vom emotionalen Underdog zur bewussten Strategie: Wie Meinungsumfragen die Parteipräferenzen der Wähler beeinflussen. In Information—Wahrnehmung—Emotion: Politische Psychologie in der Wahl- und Einstellungsforschung. Edited by Thorsten Faas, Kai Arzheimer, and Sigrid Roßteutscher, 51–70. Wiesbaden: Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-3-531-92336-9_4E-mail Citation »

    Concentrating on poll effects on vote choice, this essay systemizes and discusses current theorizing on bandwagon and underdog effects as well as strategic voting.

  • Lang, Kurt, and Gladys E. Lang. 1984. The impact of polls on public opinion. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 47.2 (March): 129–142.

    E-mail Citation »

    This early review concluded from the available evidence that public opinion polls have at best very small and highly conditional effects on public opinion.

  • Moy, Patricia, and Eike M. Rinke. 2012. Attitudinal and behavioral consequences of published opinion polls. In Opinion polls and the media: Reflecting and shaping public opinion. Edited by Christina Holtz-Bacha and Jesper Strömbäck, 225–245. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.

    E-mail Citation »

    This broad and up-to-date review of poll effects covers, alongside bandwagon and underdog effects at elections, a wide range of other phenomena of impersonal influence partly unrelated to elections, and also discusses the broader notion of impersonal influence.

  • Mutz, Diana C. 1994. The political effects of perceptions of mass opinion. In New directions in political psychology. Research in micropolitics 4. Edited by Michael X. Delli Carpini, Leonie Huddy, and Robert Y. Shapiro, 143–167. Greenwich: JAI.

    E-mail Citation »

    Preparing the author’s groundbreaking book-length study of impersonal influence, this paper offers a comprehensive and thoughtful systematization of the available empirical evidence and theoretical controversies, but also methodological challenges related to research on the bandwagon effect as well as a wide range of other phenomena of impersonal influence.

  • Traugott, Michael W. 1992. The impact of media polls on the public. In Media polls in American politics. Edited by Thomas E. Mann and Gary R. Orren, 125–149. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution.

    E-mail Citation »

    Although more than twenty years old, this thorough discussion of poll effects at elections is not outdated. It covers a wide range of aspects of the theme, including the role of exit polls and indirect as compared to direct effects. Bandwagon and underdog effects are extensively addressed.

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