Mind & Body

Is That New Word You Learned Showing Up Everywhere? That's the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon

Have you ever learned a new word, only to find it in the news the next day, or in your group chat minutes later? Have you ever found yourself saying, "Weird! I just heard about that thing?" It's not just you. It's an experience that's so common, it has not one, but two names: the frequency illusion and (our personal favorite) the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon.

Introducing the Frequency Illusion

In 2006, Arnold Zwicky, a linguistics professor at Stanford, coined the term "frequency illusion." Zwicky's illusion was meant to describe what it feels like when a concept you just learned seems to appear everywhere after you learn about it. According to Zwicky, that feeling is your brain playing a trick on you, and it involves a combination of two psychological processes.

The first process at work is selective attention, or focusing on some things and disregarding others. When you learn a new word, phrase, or idea, your brain starts to keep an eye out for instances when it shows up in the wild while paying relatively less attention to the ideas you're already familiar with. The second process Zwicky identified is confirmation bias. Your brain tells you that each time you see the new word, that's proof that the word is appearing more and more often. Because you hadn't noticed the word before, it must not have been there until now.

The important thing to remember is that Baader-Meinhof is an illusion. The human brain loves to find patterns. When it notices the repeated appearance of new information, it gets a little rush and continues to look for that new information again. The word you've just learned isn't new, but your brain's response to it is.

Now Appearing Everywhere

More than a decade before Zwicky got to work on the frequency illusion, the term Baader-Meinhof phenomenon popped into existence to describe the same thing. Surprisingly, this name came from a newspaper reader named Terry Mullen, whose letter was published in the St. Paul Pioneer Press on October 16, 1994. Mullen used the pen name "Gigetto on Lincoln" to write to the paper's "Bulletin Board" section. The full posting has been lost in the early-internet sludge pile, but according to the Pioneer Press, here's what Mullen originally wrote:

"The phenomenon goes like this: The first time you learn a new word, phrase or idea, you will see that word, phrase or idea again in print within 24 hours. (This does not apply to topical things – just obscure words, etc.)

"As you might guess, the phenomenon is named after an incident in which I was talking to a friend about the Baader-Meinhof gang (and this was many years after they were in the news). The next day, my friend phoned me and referred me to an article in that day's newspaper in which the Baader-Meinhof gang was mentioned. Quel surpris!"

In 2006, Mullen contacted Alan Bellows of Damn Interesting to clear up some confusion about the term. Mullen seemed surprised by the way the phenomenon had taken off over a decade after he coined it in his local paper.

"By the way," he wrote, "I wasn't trying to penetrate the lexicon; I was trying to amuse my friends ... I alerted the 'public' to the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon through a series of letters I submitted to the 'Bulletin Board' in the St. Paul Pioneer Press. I submitted them under the pen name 'Gigetto on Lincoln,' a reference to my wheaten terrier named Einstein, nicknamed Gigetto."

Turns out we have Einstein, Mullen, Gigetto, Zwicky, and a German urban guerrilla group to thank for our understanding of the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon. Now you know. In the next few days, don't be surprised if you notice the phenomenon itself popping up everywhere you look. It's a whimsical reminder of how easily your perception can be skewed.

Written by Kelsey Donk July 8, 2019

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