#16: The Frequency Illusion


The Frequency Illusion, also known as the Baader-Meinhoff phenomenon, is a cognitive bias which describes our tendency to see new information, names, ideas or patterns ‘everywhere’ soon after they’re first brought to our attention. It took the Baader-Meinhoff name after this curious psychological fact was first described by a reader of the St Paul Pioneer Press. Having just heard about the ultra-leftwing Baader-Meinhoff terrorist group in Western Germany, he saw Baader-Meinhoff everywhere.

The Frequency Illusion is caused by two cognitive processes: selective attention and confirmation bias.

Our brain has an incredible talent for pattern recognition. It’s one of the features that defines our ‘advanced intellect’ and has a fundamental role to play in helping us categorise and make sense of the things we see, hear and experience like patterns, colours, objects, symbols and sounds. It’s pivotal to the creation and activation of memory, sense, thinking and learning.

From the second we open our eyes in the morning we’re exposed to hundreds upon thousands of sensory informational inputs - things that our brain processes and organises without our even knowing. At this very, singular moment your brain is involved in a vast array of complex processes. For example, you’re reading the words on this screen and making sense of this logic. You’re accessing past memories and instances where you can recall this happening to you. You’re processing the environment you’re in and the shapes, sounds and colours all around you. You’re aware of the temperature and climate. You’re seeing and making sense of multiple things just outside this screen and in your peripheries that you remain aware of as you subconsciously scan your surroundings for possible threats. Most of these processes occur without you even realising so, and happen in conjunction with many, many more.

As powerful as our brains are, it would be far too onerous a task for us to actively process each of these plentiful and complex data inputs one by one, let alone to remember and retain them. In fact, we typically only remember those bits of information that we find novel or in some way particularly interesting and meaningful. Something new. Something unfamiliar. Something that catches and retains our attention becoming ‘stuck’ in our minds. This is called selective attention.

We memorise just several facts, but are inclined to overestimate their significance. This is a product of our brain’s tendency toward confirmation bias. If you’ve learned and remembered it, it’s got to be important. Right? Our confirmatory tendencies take note of these recognitions and reassure us that each new sighting is further proof of our impression that this titbit has taken on overnight, universal significance.

In reality, we’re exposed to so much information every minute of our waking, and sleeping, lives that not encountering the same information again would be truly remarkable. But, non-coincidental effects don’t grab our attention and lodge in our memories nearly as long as the coincidental, serendipitous or realisations of ‘fate’.

Those new and novel things seem to appear everywhere, in the most unexpected places, and far more frequently than pure chance would allow. But the truth is they’ve always been there. Our attention simply hasn’t been pulled to it before, like it is now.

Don’t know what I’m talking about? Don’t worry, you’ll find it everywhere now.