Have you ever heard a new song only to hear it on every radio station you switch to? Or learnt a new word only to have it pop up in everything you read? Its an eerie feeling that makes one feel like they’re being haunted. It’s a common occurrence that when one learns about something new, a concept, maybe a new word, they see it popping up everywhere around them. It feels like an odd coincidence.
However, this phenomenon is called the Baader-Meinhof effect and is also commonly referred to as the Frequency Illusion. For some people, it can be disorienting while others feel like they have been caught in some glitch in the matrix. However, this phenomenon essentially boils down to the brain playing tricks on a person. In reality, there is no increase or decrease in occurrence.
The Baader-Meinhof phenomenon is a type of cognitive bias a person’s mind creates. Cognitive biases are aberrations in one’s perception and understanding of the various stimuli present around them in which their mind deviates from normal, rational thought and begins to make up patterns based off of nonsense. An example of such a bias would be the hindsight bias, the tendency to look back on an event and think that one should have seen it coming even if there is no rational basis for such thoughts. The term for Frequency Illusion and the theory for it was coined by Arnold Zwicky who postulated that this bias resulted from two processes happening at the same time, namely selective attention and confirmation bias.
The first process, which is selective attention usually comes about when someone learns something new. This is because when one learns something, even if they’re unaware of it, they are paying more attention to that thing and it’s related stimuli compared to others. The lack of awareness is what causes the feeling of increased frequency in a person. This is amped by confirmation bias. Confirmation bias occurs when a person undervalues evidence that could disprove their belief, giving more weight to evidence that confirms their beliefs. This bias leads to the person gathering or interpreting information in a way that confirms their own belief which is why the frequency of the occurrence of the newly learned information is perceived to have increased even though it has not, because that information is still very novel and interesting to them.
Due to how widespread the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon is and how easily it can occur, many companies use it for marketing purposes. The more we are aware of something, the more likely it is that we would want it. Or so some marketers believe. That is why certain ads keep showing up in your social media feeds. Every marketing guru dreams of going viral. When we see something appear quite frequently, it can lead us to believe that it’s more desirable or more popular than it actually is. Maybe the product being advertised is actually setting a new trend and lots of people are buying it, or it could just be an illusion of ours.