"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Fads And The Bandwagon Effect

I have begun noticing how people are now wearing fluorescent-colored running shoes once only found on little kiddie feet and usually adorned with LED lights. There is no discernible reason why more and more adults are opting for these electric pinks, greens, and blues; and somehow they have caught on. Fads often begin in California, and this one might have. A San Francisco Mission hipster thought it cool to mix and match these circus shoes with retro Seattle grunge and Bollywood chic. Only the shoes caught on, production started in a small apparel start up in the East Bay, millions were made, and men and women all over the United States became newly stylish.

Fads have been around forever, and the good ones keep recycling. Hula hoops were popular decades ago, and now they have been incorporated into hip yoga routines. They are retro, sexually expressive – in order to keep them above your hips you have to do a lot of bumping and grinding – and versatile.  I have seen some hula hoop street shows which combine juggling, acrobatics, breakdancing, and kundalini yoga.  Pabst Blue Ribbon beer was never a fad when it was drunk by low-class workers wanting to get a cheap buzz on, but Cali hipsters glommed on to it, and now PBR parties are de rigeur. 

One of the first fads I can remember was for Civil War hats.  All of us kids in the Fifties had to have them, and we rushed down to Jimmy’s Smoke Shop where he had stacked them by the whoopee cushions, handshake buzzers, and dead flies in plastic ice cubes, and picked Union or Confederacy:

Economy Civil War Kepi Cap                                      Economy Civil War Kepi Cap

There have been thousands of fads since then, thousands before, and millions to come; and it has always been a mystery why we all fall for them.  Why do we merge with the crowd so quickly, easily, and happily?  Why do we want what others have rather than what we want?

Not surprisingly there is a vast body of literature on the subject, all loosely organized around ‘The Bandwagon Effect’.

In layman’s term the bandwagon effect refers to people doing certain things because other people are doing them, regardless of their own beliefs, which they may ignore or override. The perceived "popularity" of an object or person may have an effect on how it is viewed on a whole. For instance, once a product becomes popular, more people tend to "get on the bandwagon" and buy it, too. The bandwagon effect has wide implications, but is commonly seen in politics,consumer and social behavior. This effect is noticed and followed very much by youth, where for instance if people see many of their friends buying a particular phone, they could become more interested in buying that product. (Wikipedia)

Buying Civil War hats or fluorescent-colored running shoes is harmless enough, and fads keep the economy humming.  Fads often begin because of our natural tendency to want to conform - especially in adolescence, but in later life as well.  A quick look around the neighborhood shows a discernible and unmistakable similarity in dress, cars, landscaping, dogs, and porch furniture.  A true fad rips through the country from West to East, makes a splash and then disappears, while conforming social habits are more permanent.  Yet both are related to the same phenomenon of wanting to be part of a larger group.  There is absolutely no reason why my professional, liberal neighborhood should have a disproportionate number of Volvo station wagons; or why the Mini is a gay car in Washington, or the Subaru Outback a dyke car in San Francisco; why flamingos come and go as lawn ornaments in the South.  People prefer to join the acceptability of the crowd rather than risk censure, opprobrium, or ridicule.

To look less critically and more positively at faddish conformity, it makes economic sense.  If three of my neighbors own Volvos and are happy with them and their experience is consistent with my needs (safety, longevity, low maintenance) then I am likely to buy one.  Not only am I able to purchase a quality product without starting from scratch (Consumer Reports is SO boring), but I can easily erase one of the irritants from my social profile.  The beat-up 90s Skylark can go.

Fads are not so innocuous, however, when it comes to politics. 

The bandwagon effect occurs in voting: some people vote for those candidates or parties who are likely to succeed (or are proclaimed as such by the media), hoping to be on the "winner's side" in the end. The bandwagon effect has been applied to situations involving majority opinion, such as political outcomes, where people alter their opinions to the majority view. Such a shift in opinion can occur because individuals draw inferences from the decisions of others, as in an informational cascade. (Wikipedia) 

In the presidential election campaigns of the Eighties, networks declared Ronald Reagan the winner before the polls had closed in California.  Researchers investigated the influence of the premature announcement of early election results on California voting, and found that the Bandwagon Effect was indeed operative.  Networks were careful thereafter to delay any conclusive statements until the entire country had finished voting.  

[The Bandwagon Effect] is also said to be important in the American Presidential Primary elections. States all vote at different times, spread over some months, rather than all on one day. Some states (Iowa, New Hampshire) have special precedence to go early while others have to wait until a certain date. This is often said to give undue influence to these states, a win in these early states is said to give a candidate the "Big Mo” (momentum) and has propelled many candidates to win the nomination. Because of this, other states often try front loading (going as early as possible) to make their say as influential as they can. In the 2008 presidential primaries two states had all or some of their delegates banned from the convention by the central party organizations for voting too early.

Much has been made of the issue of ‘electability’ in presidential campaigns.  Voters, it seems, are as influenced by the likelihood of a candidate winning as by his credentials.  Image-makers and spin-doctors carefully craft their candidates personae to fit this expectation.  The more and more that a candidate looks winnable, the more people will join his campaign.  As predicted by Bandwagon Effect theorists, voters would rather be in the majority than hold and vote according to individual, personal convictions.

This is troubling, for the electoral process is already dumbed down to what would seem to be its lowest common denominator.  The Republican Party in particular has mastered the Five Basic Food Groups approach to politicking.  All voters need to know is that the GOP stands for Individual Liberty, Small Government, Lower Taxes, Family Values, and Private Enterprise.  Republicans know that the world is far too complex for any individual voter to understand, and that in a world of illogical belief (over half of Americans reject Evolution and believe that the Bible is the literal word of God), logical exegesis really doesn’t amount to a hill of beans; so their message is simple.  Last November, the Party built a campaign on this premise and added to it the fundamentals of Bandwagon Effect theory.  Mitt Romney has the greatest chance against President Obama, they said, so if no other reason, you should vote for him.

A far more pernicious phenomenon in America related to the Bandwagon Effect is the rise of conspiracy theories.  In the age of the Internet these theories/fads go ripping through the country like fluorescent-colored shoes or hula hoops.  When more and more sites conclude that Obama is a Black Nationalist, born in Africa, a Socialist, and dupe of the International Jewish Conspiracy, these erroneous and ridiculous conclusions gain a legitimacy and life of their own.  Soon millions of people have jumped on the bandwagon, satisfied to believe in the collective views of others, become convinced that the growth in acceptance of the claims legitimizes them even more, and reject whatever rational conclusions they might have made.

Although we would like to think that we are rational, independent-thinking people, we are not.  No matter how unique we think we are, we are products of our social environment, generation, age, and geography; and are influenced by groupthink, subtle coercion and community influence.  If you have ever ‘found’ a cute little restaurant in Williamsburg and discovered that all the diners in it looked, talked, smelled, and dressed exactly like you, you have been Bandwagoned.  It’s OK.  We all have been at one time or another.

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