Bandwagon Bias — is it safe to oppose?
By Scott Hughes
“It’s an open-and-shut case. The kid’s obviously guilty!”
The 1997 version of the movie 12 Angry Men is full of great illustrations of a number of biases. The movie revolves around twelve jurors as they deliberate following a murder trial. In the beginning of the movie, the jurors seek to end the trial because the “facts” seem obvious, and they have other “important” matters to attend to once the trial ends.
At first, it seems the “bandwagon effect” will determine the verdict. The bandwagon effect is when everyone adopts they same belief due to the pressure to drop any opposing view. (Commonly, we might know this bias as “groupthink.”)
Perhaps you’ve been part of a church committee that was guilty of groupthink. Everybody agreed to a position and came up with a group decision. There might have been a person or two who raised an objection initially, but their thoughts were quickly squelched. The decision was made. But in the end, the decision did not turn out as well as group members had hoped. Why not? The problem with groupthink is that it masks real concerns that need to be raised.
I wonder if groupthink was in effect when the Israelites keep grumbling to Moses. Perhaps that’s what led Aaron to build the golden calf while Moses was on top of Mount Sinai. In Acts 5, when some of the disciples are arrested by the Sadducees and put on trial, Rabbi Gamaliel is the voice that stands against the bandwagon effect. He prophetically warned the Sadducees regarding the disciples, “I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone, for if this plan or this undertaking is of man, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them. You might even be found opposing God!” (Acts 5:38-39, ESV)1
Jack Lemmon’s character in 12 Angry Men (most of the characters don’t have names) is the lone juror, at first, who’s willing to raise any contrary opinion. It took a lot of courage for this juror to be the lone objector. It comes at a cost, as he’s attacked personally for it and nearly physically accosted. Do his questions and his advocacy work to completely overcome the power of groupthink? I won’t ruin the movie for you, but the “open-and-shut case” becomes debatable.
Courageous Conversations are designed to be hospitable environments for all opinions. When I lead such discussions, I humorously state, “All crazy opinions are to be honored, including those uttered by me!” Only when the environment is safe will all voices be welcomed and honored. You never know how that one opposing view can shape a conversation or be the prophetic statement the group needs to hear (and even change the course of history!).
How assertive are you at raising difficult questions or opinions? Is your church a safe space for opinions that are not popular?
Can you think of any other stories that demonstrate the bandwagon effect in Scripture?
Watch 12 Angry Men as a class or group. (You could flip the classroom and invite participants to watch the movie as homework before the actual class time.) Discuss the biases at work in the movie.
Ask: “Which character do you most identify with and why?”
1The Holy Bible, English Standard Version Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.