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The HERO Skills Challenge: Breaking Bad Bias - The Bandwagon Effect

If you are reading this, know that I did my best to resist but have succumbed. I leave this as a warning to anyone who will listen, to any soul who has not fallen prey to the fastest growing cult in the United States. Maybe in this final message you may find a clue on how to stop this virus though I fear we’ve past the tipping point, crossed the Rubicon. I have spent the last few years researching the movement and here’s what I can offer in my last moments of conscious clarity.


The cult launched quietly in 1965 by three unassuming but influential men on Bainbridge Island in Washington State with the innocent intention of reducing boredom. By the end of 2023 it had an estimated 35+ million followers according to the official body that tracks such groups. Now with a nationwide (even global) reach, many cult members have settled into once peaceful, quiet neighborhoods turning neighbor against neighbor. It is not an irregular occurrence to take in news headlines about fiery fisticuffs breaking out over the use of public property for cult activities. Or read statistics of how cult activities have led to an increasing number of debilitating injuries that burden Americans with more than $400 million in health care costs every year.


The speed at which the cult has grown and continues to grow astounds many researchers. They say that this is not your garden variety cult but much more sinister. At first, the cult targeted easily susceptible older people promising them health and happiness if they commit to daily worship-like activities. Many of the older converts were drawn-in by the siren’s call and eagerly drank the Kool-Aid. But like with so many other cults, the story does not end well. These first adopter zealots quickly found themselves in emergency rooms with various cult-induced injuries, and over time, hooked on drugs to numb their pain. With a depleting supply of an older demographic, researchers predicted a move to attracting younger people. And that’s what the cult did. As its numbers grew so did the intensity of its tactics.


Unlike other cults this one is heavily armed with easily obtained handheld weapons that do not require a background check. Most members have more than one. Proud of their weaponry they make no effort to conceal. They delight in causing cacophonic conflict with their signature weapons and unending artillery. Caring little for anyone that stands in their way, heavily armed disciples have placed an unsuspecting, vice-like grip on the United States. As their legions continue to grow like a black hole, it sucks in anyone in its path. Do not be fooled by the cult’s seemingly care-free, happy-go-lucky devotees as I was. Their message of fun, fitness, and friendly competition masks their desire to swallow the world.  Even I, with the bright light of a devout former college tennis player, was unable to escape the gravitational pull of this massive black hole known as pickleball.  


This, my friends, is the cognitive bias known as the Bandwagon Effect in its purest form: the social phenomenon where individuals adopt beliefs, trends, or activities because they perceive them to be popular with others. Despite a deep-seated loyalty to tennis, I found myself enticed by the many news accounts of this thing some were calling a sport. Was there something more to pickleball than its quirky name and seemingly simplistic play? Could the collective enthusiasm of so many really sway my years-built devotion to tennis?


My journey from tennis courts to pickleball courts is more than just a transition between sports; it is an illustration of how the Bandwagon Effect can move us in unexpected directions. In this case it has turned out to be a positive effect, leading me to discover a new passion, new friends, and new communities, even if I arrived with a bit of initial apprehension and reluctance. In other cases, the Bandwagon Effect can lead us down a darker path. It can nudge us to adopt beliefs that have no basis in fact, buy products that we do not need, or perform actions that cause harm to others just because they seem popular or accepted by the crowd. So, join me in further exploring the Bandwagon Effect so that we can better recognize when it may be leading us astray.


What is the Bandwagon Effect?

Psychological Perspective

The Bandwagon Effect is a cognitive bias where individuals adopt beliefs, ideas, fads, and trends mainly because they perceive others are doing the same. Psychologically, it's tied to the concepts of social proof and conformity. We're wired to value the safety and approval of the group, which often means going along with the majority to avoid conflict or isolation.


Human Behavioral Science Perspective

From a behavioral science standpoint, the Bandwagon Effect can be seen as a heuristic, or mental shortcut, that simplifies decision-making. In a complex world, we often rely on the behavior of others to guide our actions, assuming that collective wisdom can't be wrong. This can lead to a herd mentality, where the direction of the group influences individual choices, sometimes to the detriment of personal judgment or societal outcomes.


Neuroscience Perspective

Neuroscientifically, the Bandwagon Effect is linked to areas of the brain associated with reward processing, such as the ventral striatum. When we align with the majority opinion, our brains can release dopamine, a neurotransmitter related to pleasure and reinforcement. This suggests our brains might reward us for conforming, making the experience of joining the bandwagon inherently satisfying. Furthermore, the prefrontal cortex, involved in decision-making and social behavior, seems to play a role in evaluating the perceived benefits of following the group versus standing alone, tipping the scales towards conformity under social pressure.


The Bandwagon Effect in Action

At the Workplace

Consider a team meeting where the manager presents a new, somewhat controversial strategy. As the team discusses, you notice a few influential members quickly voice strong support. Gradually, more colleagues align with this stance, praising its potential. Although you harbor doubts, the growing consensus makes you question your reservations. By the end of the meeting, you find yourself nodding along, despite your initial skepticism. This workplace scenario demonstrates how the Bandwagon Effect can sway individual opinions, leading to a consensus that might not fully reflect the team's diverse perspectives.


At Home

At home, the Bandwagon Effect might manifest in more benign, but still telling, ways. Imagine your family deciding on a movie to watch. Your sibling suggests a film that's received a lot of hype online. Initially, you're indifferent, but as more family members express excitement, driven by online reviews and social media buzz, you find yourself more eager to watch it. Your enthusiasm isn't born from your own interest but from the collective anticipation of your family, fueled by the wider public's reception.


HERO Skills to the Rescue

In addressing the Bandwagon Effect, especially as seen in my journey from tennis to pickleball, our HERO Skills—Humility, Empathy, Reflection, and Open-mindedness—become invaluable tools.


  • Humility allows us to acknowledge that just because a decision is popular, it doesn't mean it's necessarily the right one for us. This can empower us to make choices aligned with our true needs and values. In my trivial pickleball case, the Bandwagon Effect led to a net positive, but in other cases in can lead to undesired outcomes.

  • Empathy helps us understand why others might be drawn to the bandwagon, without immediately dismissing their choices as uninformed or sheep-like. As a tennis player I didn’t think much of pickleball. It was an old person’s activity that didn’t require much athleticism. Turns out I was right…and wrong!

  • Reflection is crucial for examining and understanding our motivations. Are we genuinely interested, or are we being swayed by the crowd? Reflection, and a mindful consideration of the situation, can help us pause and better understand why we should or should not jump onto the bandwagon.

  • Open-mindedness encourages us to consider alternatives to the popular choice, maybe even fostering innovation and individuality even in the face of widespread conformity. In many ways, open-mindedness and the breaking from tradition led to the invention and growth of pickleball.


Concluding Challenge

The journey from the tennis courts to embracing pickleball offers a playful yet profound look at how the Bandwagon Effect can shape our decisions and experiences. While there's joy in sharing in the popular pursuits of the moment, understanding the dynamics of the Bandwagon Effect through our HERO Skills helps to ensure that our choices remain true to our values and interests in other contexts.


By applying Humility, Empathy, Reflection, and Open-mindedness, we can navigate the currents of popular opinion with grace and intentionality. So, as you encounter the next "pickleball" in your life, whatever it may be, remember to engage the HERO Skills and critically choose paths that align with your values and resonate most deeply with you.


The Bandwagon Effect is a powerful force that can sometimes lead us astray, encouraging decisions that align more with the group's momentum than with our own reasoned choices. As a challenge, the next time you're faced with a decision where the Bandwagon Effect may be at play, pause and apply the HERO Skills. Reflect on your true needs and desires, consider the perspectives of others, and make a choice that's genuinely yours. Breaking free from the bandwagon isn't just about asserting individuality—it's about making informed, authentic choices in a world that often pushes us to conform.


By the way, you might want to try out pickleball. I hear everyone is doing it.



To learn more about the talks and workshops on the HERO Skills, leadership, human behavior, and cognitive biases, please contact Dr. Steve L. Robbins at or 616-818-6485.


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