Frequency Illusion or Why Some Words Are Chasing Us

Frequency Illusion

Frequency illusion, or the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon, is a cognitive bias which describes a curious psychological fact: after learning some bit of new information we start noticing it everywhere else. We can’t help marvelling at how it follows us and take it merely as a funny coincidence. Yet there’s nothing coincidental in it and the explanation is really simple.

Evidence shows frequency illusion happens just too often to be treated like a mere coincidence. It repeats and repeats, so it’s clear there’s something more about it. Even back in the 16th century Francis Bacon wrote:

“The human understanding when it has once adopted an opinion (either as being the received opinion or as being agreeable to itself) draws all things else to support and agree with it.”

Why Baader-Meinhof? The name was first articulated by one of the readers of the St. Paul Pioneer Press. In his letter to the editors he explained that after reading about the Baader-Meinhof group (a radical political group in Western Germany) he started seeing the name everywhere.

Pattern Recognition as Our Fundamental Ability

Human brains are extremely good at recognizing all kinds of patterns and it’s one of the things which makes them much more powerful than any computer developed so far.

Our ability to recognize patterns means we can categorize everything we see and hear around us – people, images, symbols, sounds, colors, etc. This ability links very closely with our memory, sense, thinking and studying. We take it for granted, yet the moment we open our eyes thousands of cognitive processes we cannot sense are triggered in our brain.

Frequency Illusion in Action

Every day we see thousands of things. Do we remember every last one? Clearly not, no one is capable of that. We only remember things which for one reason or another are interesting to us and somehow stand out from the rest. It can be something new, unfamiliar, but which caught our attention and stuck to our minds. We thus distinguish them from everything else that’s surrounding us.

This is called selective attention.
We memorize just several facts but are inclined to overestimate their significance – “If I learned and remembered it then it’s really important, isn’t it?”

That single thing seems to appear in the most unexpected places afterwards. But the truth is it had already been there, notwithstanding your knowledge of it! You didn’t know it beforehand and didn’t notice, that’s it.

Surely most of us have probably experienced this cognitive bias at least a few times. Some people even expect things they learned to appear soon afterwards, taking it as a natural consequence.

Encouraging Active Learning Is Important

The Baader-Meinhof phenomenon only proves once again we pay attention to things we are looking for. At the same time we overlook countless things that surround us and which we can notice at any moment and for which the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon might work as well.

Finally, frequency illusion shows us the importance of active learning: the more new patterns we reveal to ourselves the more spacious and beautiful reality can unfurl before us.

Read more on the other cognitive biases

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