Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon: a Curious Cognitive Effect
Have you ever learned about a new word, fact, idea or product and subsequently see it everywhere around you? This curious cognitive effect is known as the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon.
So, is it just a coincidence? Or is there a scientific explanation behind this phenomenon? In this post, we take a look at what the Baader-Meinhof effect means and the science behind it. We will also explore where the name for this interesting cognitive effect comes from. Say, for instance, you’ve just learned a new word that you’ve never heard before.
The next thing you know you hear your best mate say it, it’s in the next chapter of the book you’re reading, and your boss uses it in your weekly catch up. It can feel like a huge coincidence. That everyone around you has simultaneously discovered this word also. However, in reality, your brain is playing tricks on you. Fortunately, there is a rational explanation for all these strange goings-on. Stanford University linguistics professor Arnold Zwicky explored the idea of the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon in detail. He attributes the phenomenon the more scientific name ‘frequency illusion’. According to Zwicky, frequency illusion, or the feeling that once you notice something it is everywhere, is the consequence of two psychological processes: selective attention and confirmation bias. Every day we are ambushed by an incredibly large amount of information, thoughts, and emotions. As it is impossible for our brain to process all of this, we are selective about where we focus our attention. This is what psychologists know as selective attention. Where we focus on what is relevant to us and ignore what isn’t. Concerning the concept of the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon, when you learn something new, selective attention means that you’re more likely to notice this than other pieces of information that pass your way. This is where our brain actively searches for information that confirms that we are right about something. Within the context of frequency illusion, when we have learned something new confirmation bias leads us to look out for this new piece of information as it is interesting to us. As you begin to notice this new piece of information everywhere, your brain seeks to rationalize this and tells you that it must be new to lots of people who are discovering it at the same time. In reality, you’ve tuned into this piece of information that has actually always been there. Only now you’ve noticed it. When the frequency illusion occurs, it can feel exciting and like something extra special is happening to us. However, here the term ‘illusion’ speaks volumes and ultimately derives from the way our brains work.
The brain loves to seek patterns so it can make sense of the world. Once it has honed in on a new piece of information, it will continue to seek and find this. Disregarding other new pieces of info that it may come across in the process. At this point, you may be thinking ‘why is it called the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon?’ Baader-Meinhof were a militant West German radical leftist group.
They engaged in terrorist bombings, arson, kidnappings and assassinations, attacking West German and U.S. military institutions in West Germany during the 1970s. So what on earth has this got to do with frequency illusion? Allegedly, the surprising source of the name was the St.Paul Minnesota Pioneer Press online discussion board. In 1994, one commentator had come across the Baader-Meinhof group two times within 24 hours while he had never heard of them previously. He named this strange occurrence ‘the Badder-Meinhof Phenomenon’. Apparently, the originator of the phrase was very surprised by how it had taken off so vehemently after a passing comment in his local paper discussion board. It wasn’t until 2006 that the aforementioned Professor Arnold Zwicky re-named the phenomenon the more scientifically acceptable ‘frequency illusion’. It probably won’t be surprising to hear that businesses often use frequency illusion to manipulate us into giving our custom. Also known as the ‘psychology of marketing’, some businesses use the frequency illusion as part of their marketing strategy.
They plant an idea in our minds and continue to trigger this thought until they reach the intended outcome. It starts with a vibrant image or headline to grab our attention and then they plug this message via a variety of channels repeatedly. In this way, selective attention and confirmation bias work in unison to convince us that there must be a reason why this certain product/idea/event keeps following us around. Companies using this technique have to be careful that you don’t realize that the frequency illusion is being manipulated. Otherwise, when you see a targeted advert repeatedly, it may freak you out rather than grab your attention. Having read this article, you will now no doubt be seeing the words ‘Baader-Meinhof’, ‘selective attention’, and ‘confirmation bias’ following you around. At least, now you know that it isn’t a set of incredibly unlikely coincidences. Instead, it is a product of your brain seeking to make patterns in an otherwise indiscernible maze of information. R.
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