The Baader-Meinhof phenomenon

Sometimes we experience the curious phenomenon of perceiving something for the first time and subsequently having the sensation of finding it everywhere. It can also happen that we discover a new word and suddenly seem to hear it constantly, until it becomes familiar. This phenomenon is known as the “frequency illusion” or, in more scientific terms, the Baader-Meinhof effect. Has this ever happened to you?


What is the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon?

It is a psychological mechanism that does not produce symptoms. It is human and we all experience it at one time or another. This phenomenon has implications within science, marketing and medicine. It is a cognitive bias, whereby a person is more aware of something from the moment he or she first discovers it.

From that moment on, that something seems to be present more often than it actually occurs. Because of how often this happens, Stanford University linguistics professor Arnold Zwicky named it the “frequency illusion” in 2005.

This phenomenon affects everyone in the world and is not considered a disease. It can occur with products, services, colors, words or images. In any of these cases, they often appear before us as trends, although they do not reflect reality.

It’s like when we purchase a red bicycle and suddenly start noticing red bicycles everywhere. This may lead us to mistakenly think that the most popular bicycles are red. In reality, however, there are bicycles of various colors in equal numbers. What we are experiencing is known as the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon.

Origin of the name

Although surprising, this phenomenon occurs more frequently than we might imagine and has been the subject of scientific research. In this case, its name does not come from its discoverer, but from a terrorist group.

The story we are about to share goes back to Germany in 1986. In that year, Terry Mullen wrote a letter to the St. Paul Pioneer Press, a local newspaper. In his letter, Terry shared an experience he had related to the Baader-Meinhof terrorist group, which he had heard about for the first time in his life. The surprising thing is that, after discovering the existence of this group, he started hearing about it everywhere. Once the newspaper published Terry’s letter, something extraordinary happened. He began to receive messages from many people who had had similar experiences. This phenomenon, which involved a large number of individuals intrigued by what they had experienced, was christened “Baader-Meinhof”.

Analysis of the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon.

In our daily lives, the brain handles a large amount of information, but does not always process it completely. In the midst of this flow of data, the brain uses selective attention to choose what catches our attention, prioritizing certain stimuli over others. In addition to discerning between what is important and what is not so relevant, our brain creates neural patterns to retain the information it finds interesting. This process is essential to understand the phenomenon known as Baader-Meinhof.

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