This is by no means a course in logic. I’ll leave that to the experts. But, in the realm of public speaking, it’s very important to know what kinds of tricks speakers will use to try to persuade you. In the real world, this could be a faceless company’s advertisement, or a politician’s rhetoric. On a more day-to-day level, it could be a friend or an acquaintance trying to convince you to join a club or lend him $50. People want something from you, and they will try to appeal to you on some level to get their way.
And, don’t fool yourself; you do it, too.
So, we’ll focus on various persuasive tricks, particularly those that sometimes look or feel logical, but, in fact, are not. These are logical fallacies. On the surface, the seem silly and easily exposed. But, on some more emotional level, they seem to make sense, and can be quite persuasive. That’s what makes them so dangerous.
So, let’s look at one today – the bandwagon effect.
But, Mom! Everyone’s Doing It!
As a teenager, I would ask my parents to let me take the car so I could go to the local hang out (which, sadly, was McDonald’s for teens in Oscoda, MI). They would want to know why I wanted to use the car, and I would patiently explain the situation. When told that I could not, in fact, borrow the car, the cry so often heard (and displayed in the sub-title above), “But Mom! Everyone’s doing it!”
Ergo, it must be the right thing to do… right?
Not necessarily. Mom’s across America will fire back, “If everyone jumped off a bridge, would you?”
Now, we may assign that to the silliness of being a teenager and say that we are no longer following the crowd. Yet, I see evidence to the contrary. In fact, in times of chaos or uncertainty, it is often more likely that you will see people following the lead of others.
The stock market crashes, and stocks are lower now than ever. Do people buy these bargain stocks or do they panic and sell theirs for next to nothing?
Driving home from your commute, you see a big traffic jam in front of you. You notice a few cars shooting over to the next lane. You follow them. Why? Do you think they have some knowledge that you don’t? How often did it lead to you getting out of the jam more quickly and how often did it lead you right to the source of the jam, forcing you to try to merge back into your original lane?
The Grand Experiment
Try this as an experiment: get a group of friends in on this, and have someone lie on the floor in a fairly busy hallway or commons area as if unconscious. Have others standing around as if nothing is happening. Let them chat and step over and around you. See how many people will respond to the person lying on the ground. The number might shock you.
You see, in moments of uncertainty, people will look around to gather cues on what to do next. If everyone else is standing around, it’s a compelling argument for others to do the same. For those who have received CPR training, they are taught to identify a person in particular and tell her to go for help. This relieves the uncertainty. If you just yell for help to no one in particular, everyone will wonder what to do. And, seeing no one else move, they will all stand perfectly still, desperately wishing they knew what to do other than what everyone else is doing.
This translates into something a little less grim in the world of advertising. You may notice images on television of lots of people enjoying a product. Those people tend to have characteristics about them that you will identify with. Some you have (like being young), and some you want (like being rich). In any event, you’ll notice they are all enjoying a product, and you can join them by doing the same thing, too.
Simple. Obvious. Effective.
Whenever you hear a story about various individuals doing something (let’s say donating to a cause), the speaker is trying to paint a picture that says, “Everyone’s doing it. So, you should, too, for that reason.”
Whenever you hear a statistic about a large percentage of people or sheer numbers of people doing something (let’s say donating to a cause), the speaker is trying to paint a picture that says, “Everyone’s doing it. So, you should, too, for that reason.”
It’s tricky. It’s subtle. And, it’s effective. But, it doesn’t mean it’s true. Just because everyone is doing it (if that’s even true) doesn’t mean it is the right thing to do. Lots of people do the wrong thing every day. Is eating junk food the right thing to do if everyone is doing it? Is over-extending your credit the right thing to do if everyone is doing it?
Just remember, there are many reasons for doing something or not doing something. But, following the decisions of others is not reason enough. So, whenever you hear an argument that even implies that others are doing it, let that be a red flag.