When I made up my mind to purchase a new car a couple of years ago, I shortlisted a few options. I visited showrooms, checked them out, and even did a test drive. During one of the visits, a salesman asked me to look at one specific car which was more expensive.
Though he knew my budget, he did what salespeople do best. “Just take a look. You do not have to buy it,” he said.
From that moment, the car felt like my new found love. Wherever I went, I started seeing the same vehicle. It was on the streets, some people at work had it, and I could spot it in the parking areas of restaurants. Heck, even TV ads and billboards started shoving the car in my face.
“So the car is clearly the latest trend,” I told myself. Thankfully, the car was 30% over the budget I had in mind, so I convinced myself not to purchase it. A few years later, I read about the Baader Meinhof phenomenon and realized why I saw the same vehicle everywhere.
What is the Baader Meinhof phenomenon?
Baader Meinhof phenomenon is an effect where something you recently encountered, experienced, or learned, suddenly shows up everywhere. The bias can apply to an object, an event, a concept, an idea, a word, and so on. Once you find something you never knew before, you start noticing it in the strangest of places.
Arnold Zwicky called the effect Frequency Bias in 2006. The original name goes back to the 1970s. You might expect that the name originates from the researcher who first spotted it. But the real origin will surprise you.
Baader Meinhof is the name of a German Terrorist group. The phenomenon was named after them by a commenter on an online discussion board in the mid-1990s. After the person read about the terrorist group, he encountered their name twice within 24 hours, even though it had nothing to do with the gang.
Since no researcher knew the reason for the phenomenon and no one had a better alternative, the name stuck on forever. Today, psychologists prefer the name frequency bias, possibly due to the ease of pronunciation. The right pronunciation of Baader Meinhof is baa-dur myn-hof.
Read about 20 cognitive biases of the brain here.
Why does the frequency bias occur?
From the surface, you feel like the new thing you learned has magically popped up everywhere. In reality, it was always around you, but you never paid attention. Once you knew about it, you started taking notice.
In my example, until the salesman showed me the car, I did not even know it existed. The vehicle was on the streets and parking lots as always. Once my mind developed an affection for the car, I started seeing it everywhere.
Once an object or an idea catches your attention, your brain keeps an unconscious tab on it. You think you aren’t doing anything intentionally.
Yet, your brain is far more powerful and does many activities subconsciously. When you have to drive to work, you do not instruct your hands to steer or your feet to break, do you? You drive on autopilot mode.
Likewise, your brain keeps an eye on certain things without your knowledge. As a result, you start seeing things that you otherwise ignored. You assume those objects were never around before. Because you start noticing them now, you believe they are surprisingly common.
Here is a visual which explains how the effect works:
The world around you remained the same. The only change was in your head. Once your brain heard about it, you spotted it. The change gave a false illusion that what you’re noticing occurred only recently.
People refer to the effect with various names such as red car syndrome or blue car syndrome.
The Baader Meinhof phenomenon occurs due to a combination of two different cognitive biases:
The world around us is complicated. The brain knows what to process and what to ignore to make sense of our surroundings. Such knowledge stems from the experience you have gained from the time of your birth.
For example, when you walk down a street, your eyes can see so many people walking around. You spot what color of clothes they are wearing and how fast they are walking. Yet, your brain does not register any of that information because you have learned over the years that it is useless.
However, if you spot someone committing a murder, your brain does remember some of the details at least.
Similarly, until you learn about the new object, an idea, or a word, your brain chooses to ignore it. Once you gain knowledge, your mind starts paying selective attention.
Confirmation bias is the tendency to selectively look at new information to match your beliefs and assumptions. You want your original belief to stay intact. If any information matches your opinion, you accept it. If you find any facts that contradict your view, you either find fault with them or ignore them as a one-off case.
In my case, I had made up my mind that the new car was fantastic. My mind scampered around finding proof to validate my belief.
Evaluating new facts needs energy, and changing your belief makes you uncomfortable. Therefore, the brain chooses the path of least resistance – sticking to the original belief.
Your brain has a Reticular Activation System(RAS) to help you navigate through daily functions. Though it runs on autopilot, the RAS does the job based on what you feed it.
For example, assume the grocery store is a 5 min walk from your house. You have two routes to get there. You find one of them peaceful, or maybe you find it a tad faster. Whatever the reason is, you will have one preferred route among the two.
Your RAS takes your choice as a guideline. Tomorrow, if you are on a phone call and have to buy groceries, you will pick the preferred route. That’s your RAS acting without your knowledge.
Once you like an idea or an object, you feed the belief into your RAS. Your conscious brain might focus on a different task, but your RAS is looking out for the object. Your eyes notice it on the street, and your brain receives a signal, boom!
Examples of Baader Meinhof phenomenon
The most common example of the effect occurs during shopping. If you feel like buying white sneakers, you will spot them all over the shopping mall. You will notice shoe stores having more white options than usual. You will spot people wearing them, and you might see some outlets offering discounts too.
Your partner walking beside you in the same mall will not observe a higher than usual trend in white.
2. Buying high priced stuff
The effect takes higher prominence when you are purchasing items of a higher cost like a car or a house. When you spot something more expensive, your brain considers it better. Since you have learned from childhood that better goods cost more money, you make the same judgment automatically.
Once your brain develops a warmth for the object, you start seeing it all around you. Such an effect leads to extending the budget to buy the item you fancy. Your desire and the frequency bias leads to a higher expense without thinking the decision through or evaluating its real value.
3. Investment opportunities
You hear about a new investment opportunity from a friend. The choice might be stocks, real estate, or mutual funds. Once you learn about the potential to make money, you hear about people who made millions out of it. You seem to encounter them in real life and on the internet.
Before you heard about making money from such a medium, you never knew people around you were already doing it. You believe people have started investing recently. The truth is, you spotted it only a while ago.
The same behavior causes stocks to rise and fall. A similar mindset played a role in the surge of cryptocurrency. People who had no idea what blockchain was, jumped right in, thinking it was a gold mine. Sure, the news spread fast during a specific few months, but your brain started hearing about it from all sides, once you fancied the thought of making more money.
4. New business idea
When you’re in the shower, your brain flashes an idea which you believe will turn into the next big thing. Let’s say your idea is, a phone projecting a keyboard on any surface where you can type.
You will start noticing business opportunities for different scenarios.
- Lengthy message to type? A projected keyboard would have helped.
- Have to type faster? A projected keyboard would have helped.
- Want to draft a document for the CEO? A projected keyboard would have helped.
Though they are not huge market opportunities, your brain believes they have potential.
5. New word
The frequency bias shows up often when you learn a new word. You find others using the word, you spot it in newspapers and articles. Sometimes you also feel the situation warrants the usage of the word. Baader Meinhof phenomenon is explained using this example often.
One of the key tactics of marketing is to trigger your brain with the product the company is trying to sell. TV ads use the same technique to feed the item into your mind. If not, those commercials would serve no purpose.
For example, when you watch your favorite sportsperson drink a bottle of soda, you won’t run to the supermarket to buy one. But next time you walk past the rack in the store, you suddenly remember, “Oh, I have to try this.” When millions of people around the world do the same, the ad turns profitable.
For the same reason, meaningless but funny ads or commercials with a catchy song work wonders. They do nothing to explain the product but register the brand in your brain.
7. Social Media and E-commerce sites
Have you tried looking for a specific product on the internet and found similar products on every site you visit? This is not a result of the Baader Meinhof phenomenon though. Shopping sites know what you’re looking for, and they target those exact ads to you.
When you use the internet, your browser stores some context of your usage. Advertisers use that data to try and make a sale. If you searched for a TV on Amazon recently, it stores that information. When you’re on Facebook, Amazon uses that information to display paid ads for you.
The repeated ads you see all over the internet are due to an intentional marketing technique used by sellers.
How to overcome the Baader Meinhof phenomenon?
In simple words, you cannot overcome the effect. You can only control your actions by awareness. When you feel like buying a new watch, a bike, or an outfit, you will start noticing it around you. No matter what you do, you cannot train your brain to avoid such observation. Evolution has wired your mind to function that way.
But next time you encounter such an effect, all you can do is remind yourself why it happened. You can avoid consequences such as making the wrong choice or spending additional money.
The Baader Meinhof phenomenon is one of the less harmful cognitive biases of the brain. It is easy to spot because when it occurs, you sense something strange. In comparison, other flaws of the mind, such as confirmation bias, anchoring effect, clustering illusion, happen without your knowledge and influence your decisions before you know it. Therefore, the Baader Meinhof phenomenon is a relatively easier cognitive bias to overcome.
The frequency bias will occur often. Do not think you have gone crazy. Next time you face it, do not try to fight it, proceed with caution, and do not let it influence your decision.
Leave a comment on your experience with the Baader Meinhof phenomenon.
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