The Baader-Meinhof phenomenon

Chances are that you will hear about this effect again, soon.

Ever heard of the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon?

Well, chances are that you’ll hear about it again soon.

The Baader-Meinhof phenomenon (also known as frequency illusion) is when you notice something, perhaps something out of the ordinary, like coming across an unusual name, hearing a song, or an learning the name of an actor that you never seen of before.

Suddenly, that thing you noticed for the first time in your life just yesterday, starts appearing from nowhere both here and there.

Like some sort of short-term déjà vu on steroids.

What’s really going on here?

That obscure song from the 80’s

Most of us have experienced the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon — I know I have.

I experience it literally all the time.
And that’s not an exaggeration.

Since I’m not a superstitious person, I’ve always taken for granted that it has something to with with a psychological fallacy or bias — like confirmation bias.

Confirmation bias is when we hear or see what we want to hear and see. The things that we don’t want to see or hear, well, they don’t seem to register as easily.

However, confirmation bias, which is a widely known and well-studied psychological fallacy, doesn’t account for the full experience of the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon.

Let’s say that I walk by a store and from within that store, I hear that they’re playing a rather unusual song from the 80’s that I haven’t heard in ages. I used to love it, but I had simply forgotten about it.

In the following weeks, I hear the song again and again — and always by chance. How weird.

If we were to explain these occurrences using the fallacy of confirmation bias alone, we must conclude that I’ve encountered this rather rare song from the 80’s all the time, but without noticing it consciously.

But how can that be — especially if the song is rather obscure?

The frequency illusion

According to the Stanford linguist professor Arnold Zwicky, who coined the term frequency illusion for this phenomenon in 2006, there’s also something else going on before your confirmation bias kicks in.

When something novel sparks an emotional reaction, your brain starts to actively scan for whatever it was that you noticed. Unconsciously, your brain is now actively seeking for that song — wherever you go.

How does the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon affect us?

The term Baader-Meinhof phenomenon made it out into the open internet and has since become what we call this peculiar phenomenon. If you’re suffering from mental illness, it could fuel paranoia and other types of unhealthy states.

But there are positive examples, too.

“In 2019, third-year medical student Kush Purohit wrote a letter to the editor of Academic Radiology to talk about his own experience on the matter. Having just learned of a condition called “bovine aortic arch,” he went on to discover three more cases within the next 24 hours. Purohit suggested that taking advantage of psychological phenomena such as Baader-Meinhof could benefit students of radiology, helping them to learn basic search patterns as well as the skills to identify findings that others may overlook.”

Source: Healthline

The online forum and German terrorists

Why do we call it the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon and not the frequency effect?

The more popular term Baader-Meinhof phenomenon was first used by a commenter in an online discussion forum after hearing about the ultra-left-wing terrorist group Baader-Meinhof Gang, also known as the Red Army Faction (RAF), twice in 24 hours.

The forum belongs to the St Paul Pioneer Press and is said to be referenced there every now and then since still to this day.

And so the phenomenon in itself has nothing to do with the terrorist group that wreaked havoc in Germany in the 70’s.

One could make the case that it’s not ideal to reference a group of terrorists. The phenomenon could just have as well have been named anything else. But it stuck.

Information processing and the butterfly effect

So, what about that obscure song from the 80’s then?

Was I really hearing that song all the time — only without noticing it?

Well, yes and no.

Selective attention and confirmation bias explains what happens, but it doesn’t address just how much information our brains are filtering out on a regular basis.

We actually don’t know how much information our subconscious brains are registering, but it’s likely to be a lot.

And then there’s at least two additional mechanism of significance at play here, too.

Subconscious information processing

First, your brain is likely scanning for many recently discovered novelties at the same time.

Maybe you’ve encountered several hundred potential Baader-Meinhof phenomenons in the last seven days, but you only come across one or two of these instances again in the coming seven days.

The rest of these subconscious interests are then forgotten, so you only remember those instances when the effect kicks in for you.

The butterfly effect

Secondly, we live in an interconnected society. We shouldn’t underestimate the chaotic network effects.

Maybe lots of people in your area heard that same song on the radio that day? Maybe lots of them reacted in the same way I did?.

There’s actually a possibility that your initial feeling indeed is right; a small spark could lead to a butterfly effect and increase the likelihood of you encountering the same thing soon again as a result of this spreading chain of events.

For instance, if you learnt about the Baader-Meinhof just now, on this blog, then you’re actually crossing paths with my online algorithms as I’ve researched this blog post on Google. I’ve got a Facebook pixel and I’ve also — obviously! — liked the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon page.

I’m not suggesting that you will hear about the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon ever again.

I’m only suggesting that the statistical chance might have gotten a tiny little bit bigger for you by reading this blog post.

Add a great number of subconscious impressions each and every day, some selective attention, and then a good portion of confirmation bias and voilà.

The Baader-Meinhof phenomenon and language

Remember the scientist who coined the term frequency illusion for this term, Arnold Zwicky?

He noticed that people who are above-average interested in language are extra prone to having these experiences.

Regarding how often I’ve experienced this phenomenon myself, maybe I should add that I didn’t just study public relations at the university:

I did also study linguistics!

Cover photo by Jerry Silfwer