The Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon

Emily Ma, Journalist/Editor

Has this ever happened to you? The day before taking a big test, it feels like everything is a constant reminder of the exam; from the articles in the day’s newspaper to the conversations with your parents. Or maybe you just encountered a new word and now it seems to be popping up everywhere. If so, you’re not alone. This is a common experience known as the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon.
Also known as frequency bias or red car syndrome, it is a form of cognitive bias you will likely encounter at least once in your life. The phenomenon’s name comes from an incident of this bias occurring involving the mention and subsequent rediscovery of the West German Baader-Meinhof gang in 1994. Terry Mullen of Minnesota wrote to a newspaper detailing the illusion of seeing something more often after a fresh experience with it. Mullen had conversed with his friend about the Baader-Meinhof gang and the next day his friend found an article on it, despite it having faded away years before.
Ten years after Mullen’s letter, Stanford linguist Arnold Zwicky wrote an article describing what he called the “frequency illusion”. Zwicky explained that the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon is a byproduct of two different cognitive processes. First, selective attention causes you to focus on the things that matter to you and forget what is irrelevant. The second form of cognitive bias is known as confirmation bias. This makes you continue to search for information that can confirm your belief that the things on your mind have suddenly increased in quantity.
This is also part of what makes advertisements successful: after learning about a new product, ensuing mentions cause you to believe the product is popular, leading to an increased chance that you will buy it. It challenges the credibility of eyewitnesses as well, as it affects their ability to provide an accurate account of events.
While this phenomenon makes it seem as though the occurrences of a specific thing have suddenly gone up, they actually have not changed at all. The only thing that has changed is your brain’s distribution of attention.
Now that the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon has caught your attention, don’t be surprised if you hear about it again soon…