The Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon: When You See Something You Just Learned Everywhere

by | Feb 12, 2021


Years ago a friend who is a chef mentioned the importance of including umami in soups and various other dishes. I had never heard the word umami and had no idea what it was. Here’s an IFOD on umami if you are curious. After learning about umami, I started to see the word everywhere! I began to feel like I was a crazy person. How did I not notice the word umami before since it seems to be ubiquitous? Was I living in a parallel reality previously and my friend’s mention of umami opened a portal into a different universe?

What I had experienced is what is known as the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon (also called the frequency illusion or recency illusion). This phenomenon occurs when you learn about some obscure piece of information and then it seems to pop up everywhere. When it occurs it can trigger surprise, wonder, or a feeling that the universe has an underlying pattern or meaning.

So, what’s going on? Why do we have Baader-Meinhof experiences? According to Stanford linguist Arnold Zwicky it is caused by two psychological processes:

First is selective attention: when you learn something new your brain gets excited and notes that it has new information. Because we’ve evolved to be pattern-seekers, our brains subconsciously keep an eye out for whether the new information is part of a pattern.

The second process is confirmation bias, “which reassures you that each sighting is further proof of your impression that the thing has gained overnight omnipresence.”

Where did the name Baader-Meinhof come from? I had assumed that there were scientists with these names that discovered the phenomenon. But no — it’s much more interesting than that. According to Pacific Standard, the name “was invented in 1994 by a commenter on the St. Paul Pioneer Press’ online discussion board, who came up with it after hearing the name of the ultra-left-wing German terrorist group twice in 24 hours. The phrase became a meme on the newspaper’s boards, where it still pops up regularly, and has since spread to the wider Internet. It even has its own Facebook page.”

1 Comment

  1. And of course the third process is “more actual instances” = increased repetition of new trendy words or concepts, such as “Baader-Meinhoff Phenomenon”. 😉


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