The Bandwagon Effect

“I was there when we were relegated against Middlesborough at The Bridge.” 

It’s amazing how many Chelsea fans I meet who, when I claim were “Johhny-cum-lately’s” wheel out the fact they were there when The Blues were relegated for the last time back in 1988.  Of course, back then stadiums could hold hundreds of thousands of fans, so you would believe rather than the 40,000 that were actually there.  These fans will have you believe they have been die-hard blues forever and a day.  However, in truth a fair percentage all know will have simply jumped on the bandwagon about 3 minutes after Roman Abramovich arrived in SW6.

You can swap Chelsea out for Manchester City, Liverpool or even Leicester City in the last decade, with each club seeing an increase in attendances as success has arrived. In the case of the Foxes, who went from an average of 25,000 to 32,000 sell-outs in just two seasons when they won the Premier League in 2016.

There is actually an economic theory that explains these responses to success.  The bandwagon effect is a phenomenon whereby the rate of uptake of beliefs, ideas, fads and trends increases the more that they have already been adopted by others. In other words, the bandwagon effect is characterized by the probability of individual adoption increasing with respect to the proportion who have already done so.  As more people come to believe in something, others also “hop on the bandwagon” regardless of the underlying evidence. 

The tendency to follow the actions or beliefs of others can occur because individuals directly prefer to conform, or because individuals derive information from others.  Big words indeed from Mr Solomon Asch there who derived the theory from his conformity experiments back in the 1950’s. Whilst his footballing alliances are still unknown, for the sake of illustrative purposes, let’s assume he was a Portsmouth fan and was still celebrating after watching them win a second consecutive Football League Division One title in 1950.

Whilst the Pompey Chimes rang out around Fratton Park, Sol wondered where all these fans had come from.  A few seasons earlier they had been giving away free tickets to the Royal Navy to fill up the ground and now that they were the best team in England again it was standing room only, quite literally.  He concluded that when individuals, or fans in this case, make rational choices based on the information they receive from others, in this case fellow fans down the Dog and Duck or in the “pink ‘un”, information cascades can quickly form in which people decide to ignore their personal information signals and follow the behaviour of others – i.e whilst yesterday they were a Southampton fan, today they support Portsmouth because people like the winning feeling and they don’t want to be teased by their friends in the pub for finishing 4th in the Second Division.

In the 1947/48 season, when Pompey finished 8th, the average attendance at Fratton Park was 31,000. The following two season when they won the title, it was 37,000 but 12 months later when they finished 7th they lost 5,000 fans somewhere. Why?

 Asch had the answer in his original theory.  He said that the fact information “cascades” explains why their behaviour is fragile—these “fans” understand that they are swayed on very limited information. As a result, fads form easily but are also easily dislodged. 

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is The Brandwagon Effect in a nutshell.

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