For most of us, the picture above was probably a very familiar feature of our Facebook timelines in the days following the November 2015 Paris Terror Attacks. It certainly was for me, as I scrolled through my timeline, all I saw was a blur of blue, white and red as all of my friends rushed to overlay their profile picture with a translucent image of the French flag. For some perhaps it was a simple and achievable way of showing support for the French victims of a deadly attack. Whilst others questioned the usefulness of the act, mocking the ineffectiveness of it with memes such as the one below. Furthermore, some asked why people only seemed to show solidarity for people in Western countries, whilst other similar events in other parts of the world are frequently ignored.
So why did so many people decide to jump on the French flag bandwagon? Well the clue may actually be in just that - the Bandwagon Effect. The Bandwagon Effect proposes that the more people are seen to be behaving in a certain way, the more other people will join in with this behaviour. There is plenty of evidence to support this psychological phenomenon, for example, Milgram, Bickman & Berkowitz (1969) conducted an experiment where they deliberately placed people on a busy New York street. These people (or confederates, if you will) then all looked up at a fixed point in the street. Milgram, Bickman & Berkowitz sat back and waited for the innocent passersby to then also look up at this totally made up point. But the really interesting bit is how when the experimenters increased the number of confederates who looked up, this also in turn, increased the number of passersby who looked up. The graph below shows the effect of different numbers of confederates (along the X axis) on the number of passersby who also look up or stop (Y axis).
This research shows how the more people display a certian type of behaviour, the more people copy this behaviour. And Facebook is a great example of this theory because it allows us to see what large groups of people we know are doing, at any given time. If you see them 'all' doing something, then it's no wonder that you want to be part of the action too, even if you haven't given a huge amount of thought the message behind your action.
This public nature of Facebook is important in another way too. The presence of a public audience can make behaviour change more likely, especially when the behaviour can be perceived as socially acceptable. Facebook is a very public forum which allows people to edit and modify their public persona in ways which they think will cast them in a positive light. Rind & Benjamin (1994) proved the effect that having an audience can have, in an experiment where they asked men if they would like to buy raffle tickets. Half of the men approached were on their own, whilst the other half were with a female companion.The men who were with a female companion at the time, said yes to the request significantly more than men who were alone when asked. This shows the powerful impact that knowing your behaviour is being watched can have. Of course on Facebook, this effect is likely to be magnified considerably, with every post being potentially seen by hundreds of Facebook friends.
Therefore, it seems likely that many of my Facebook friends perceived changing their profile picture as a socially acceptable action that would be judged positively by their audience. And the more people who did this, the more Facebook friends saw it and copied the behaviour, thus having a snowball effect that gathered momentum until, like me, your timeline was a sea of French flags.
Milgram, S., Bickman, L., & Berkowitz, L. (1969). Note on the drawing power of crowds of different size. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 13, 79 - 82.
Rind, B., & Benjamin, D. (1994). Effects of public image concerns and self-image on compliance. Journal of Social Psychology, 134, 19 - 25.