The Appeal to Popularity Fallacy: How to Think Independently

Let’s begin this article with a quick trip down memory lane.

When you were a kid, did you ever try to convince your parents to buy you a Pet Rock, Transformer, Furby, or whatever the popular fad toy of your childhood was?

Stating your case, you probably said something like, “Everyone at school has one! And they say it’s the best toy ever, so I have to have one, too!”

To which, inevitably, your parents responded something like, “If everyone at school jumped off a cliff, would you do it, too?”

With that response, whether or not they knew it, your parents were pointing out a flaw in your reasoning known as…

The Appeal to Popularity Fallacy

This is a fallacy that occurs when something is considered being good, true, or valid solely because it’s popular.

The reasoning goes like this: “Everybody is doing X. Therefore, X must be the right thing to do.” That kind of thinking is problematic because, as your parents pointed out, the majority isn’t always right.

Something can be true, even if everyone believes it’s false. And something can be false, even if everyone believes it’s true.

When stated in such explicit language, few people think they’d fall for such stupid reasoning. But even among adults, appeal to popularity is a remarkably common fallacy. The reason is that our intuition tells us that if an idea is popular, it must have some truth to it.

But ideas don’t get popular because they’re true. They get popular because they’re, well, popular. This phenomenon is called…

The Bandwagon Effect

If an idea gains some attraction, that will, in and of itself, attract more interest. That interest then generates even more interest and, before you know it, everyone is jumping on the bandwagon and giving their support for the idea1.

It doesn’t matter if the idea is true or not. The bandwagon has its own momentum and will carry its passengers either way.

Now, that doesn’t mean that you should completely disregard popular ideas. Sometimes what the majority believes is actually true.

For example, if most scientists accept that the universe is about 13.7 billion years old, it’s wise to believe them because they can present good evidence for their claim.

But in most cases, it’s important to treat appeals to popularity with a healthy dose of skepticism. If you don’t, you handicap your judgment and risk making poor decisions. For example:

  • “This book doesn’t look all that great, but it has sold a million copies, so I’ll buy it.”
  • “It’s against the law to lie on your taxes, but everyone does it, so I’ll do it, too.”
  • “Everyone at work sleeps just five hours per night, so I’ll start cutting back on my sleep.”

In the words of Mark Twain: “Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.” Deliberately choose the bandwagons you jump on, and you’ll make wiser choices and get better results.

This article is an excerpt from my book The Decision-Making Blueprint.

Footnote

  1. Bandwagon Effect