Baader-Meinhof phenomenon. It’s got an unusual name, that’s for sure. Even if you’ve never heard of it, chances are that you’ve experienced this interesting phenomenon, or you soon will.

In short, Baader-Meinhof phenomenon is a frequency bias. You notice something new, at least it’s new to you. It could be a word, a breed of dog, a particular style of house, or just about anything. Suddenly, you’re aware of that thing all over the place.

In reality, there’s no increase in occurrence. It’s just that you’ve started to notice it.

Follow along as we take a deeper dive into Baader-Meinhof phenomenon, how it got that strange name, and its potential to help or hinder us.

We’ve all been there. You heard a song for the first time just the other day. Now you’re hearing it everywhere you go. In fact, you can’t seem to escape it. Is it the song — or is it you?

If the song just hit number one on the charts and is getting a lot of play, it makes sense that you’re hearing it a lot. But if the song turns out to be and oldie, and you’ve only recently become aware of it, you may be in the clutches of the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon, or the perception of frequency.

It’s the difference between something actually happening a lot and something you’re starting to detect a lot.

Baader-Meinhof phenomenon, or Baader-Meinhof effect, is when your awareness of something increases. This leads you to believe it’s actually happening more, even if that’s not the case.

Why is your brain playing tricks on you? Don’t worry. It’s perfectly normal. Your brain is simply reinforcing some newly acquired information. Other names for this are:

  • frequency illusion
  • recency illusion
  • selective attention bias

You might also hear it called red (or blue) car syndrome and for good reason. Last week you decided you’re going to buy a red car to stand out from the crowd. Now every time you pull into a parking lot, you’re surrounded by red cars.

There are no more red cars this week than there were last week. Strangers didn’t run out and buy red cars to gaslight you. It’s just that since you made the decision, your brain is drawn to red cars.

While it’s often harmless, there are times this can be a problem. If you have certain mental health conditions, such as schizophrenia or paranoia, frequency bias can lead you to believe something that isn’t true and may make symptoms worse.

Baader-Meinhof phenomenon sneaks up on us, so we usually don’t realize it as it’s happening.

Think of all you’re exposed to in a single day. It’s simply not possible to soak in every detail. Your brain has the job of deciding which things require focus and which can be filtered out. Your brain can easily ignore information that doesn’t seem vital in the moment, and it does so every day.

When you’re exposed to brand-new information, especially if you find it interesting, your brain takes notice. These details are potentially destined for the permanent file, so they’re going to be front and center for a while.

Although it’s usually harmless, Baader-Meinhof phenomenon can cause problems in scientific research.

The scientific community is made up of human beings and, as such, they are not immune to frequency bias. When that happens, it’s easier to see evidence confirming the bias while missing evidence against it.

That’s why researchers take steps to guard against bias.

You’ve probably heard of “double-blind” studies. That’s when neither the participants nor the researchers know who’s getting what treatment. It’s one way to get around the problem of “observer bias” on anyone’s part.

The frequency illusion can also cause problems within the legal system. Eyewitness accounts, for example, are often wrong. Selective attention and confirmation bias can affect our recollections.

Frequency bias can also lead crime solvers down the wrong path.

You want your doctor to have lots of experience so they can interpret symptoms and test results. Pattern recognition is important to many a diagnosis, but frequency bias can make you see a pattern where there isn’t one.

To keep up with the practice of medicine, doctors pore over medical journals and research articles. There’s always something new to learn, but they must guard against seeing a condition in patients just because they’ve recently read up on it.

Frequency bias can lead a busy doctor to miss other potential diagnoses.

On the other hand, this phenomenon can be a learning tool. 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.

The more you’re aware of something, the more likely you are to want it. Or so some marketers believe. That’s probably why certain ads keep showing up in your social media feeds. Going viral is many a marketing guru’s dream.

Seeing something appear again and again can lead to the assumption that it’s more desirable or more popular than it is. Maybe it actually is a new trend and lots of people are buying the product, or it could just seem that way.

If you’re inclined to take some time to research the product, you might come away with a different perspective. If you don’t give it much thought, seeing the ad over and over just might confirm your bias so you’re more likely to whip out your credit card.

Back in 2005, Stanford University linguist Arnold Zwicky wrote about what he termed the “recency illusion,” defining it as “the belief that things YOU have noticed only recently are in fact recent.” He also discussed “frequency illusion,” describing it as “once you’ve noticed a phenomenon, you think it happens a whole lot.”

According to Zwicky, the frequency illusion involves two processes. The first is selective attention, which is when you notice things that interest you most while disregarding the rest. The second is confirmation bias, which is when you look for things that support your way of thinking while disregarding things that don’t.

These thought patterns are probably as old as humankind.

The Baader-Meinhof Gang

The Baader-Meinhof Gang, also known as Red Army Faction, is a West German terrorist group that was active in the 1970s.

So, you probably wonder how the name of a terrorist gang became attached to the concept of frequency illusion.

Well, just as you might suspect, it appears that it was born of the phenomenon itself. It may go back to a discussion board in the mid-1990s, when someone became aware of the Baader-Meinhof gang, then heard several more mentions of it within a short period.

Lacking a better phrase to use, the concept simply became known as Baader-Meinhof phenomenon. And it stuck.

By the way, it’s pronounced “bah-der-myn-hof.”

There you have it. Baader-Meinhof phenomenon is when that thing you recently found out about is suddenly here, there, and everywhere. But not really. It’s just your frequency bias talking.

Now that you’ve read about it, don’t be surprised if you bump into it again real soon.