You heard a great song for the first time the other day and suddenly you’re hearing it everywhere you go — in the car, at the supermarket, at your best friend’s 4th of July barbecue. And now you’ve started seeing advertisements for the group’s new album everywhere you look. In fact, you just can’t seem to get away from them. Could it be that you discovered the band just as it exploded on the scene? Probably not. In all likelihood, you are experiencing the frequency illusion. What is this cognitive bias and why does it happen?
What is the frequency illusion?
The frequency illusion — also known as the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon — describes our tendency to notice something for the first time and then suddenly to see it everywhere, giving us the impression that it’s come from nowhere and taken over the world. In reality, it only seems to be everywhere because we’re noticing it more. The bias is also sometimes referred to as “red (or blue) car syndrome” in honor of people who have decided to buy a red (or blue) car to stand out from the crowd, only to find themselves surrounded by cars of the same color.
The bias does not apply to things like popular movies or outfits, or hot topics in the news, just to more obscure things that you wouldn’t expect to see or hear about that often.
How it all started
The first known report of the bias dates back to 1994, when Terry Mullen posted a comment on the St. Paul Pioneer Press’ online discussion board mentioning that he had been talking to a friend about the once-notorious West German terrorist Baader-Meinhof group that was active in the 1970s, and the next day his friend had referred him to an article in the newspaper in which the left-wing terrorist organization was mentioned, decades after it had any reason to be in the news. Several other readers then shared that they’d had the same sort of experiences, and, for lack of a better term, the concept became known as Baader-Meinhof phenomenon.
Twelve years later, Arnold Swicky, professor of linguistics at Stanford University, coined the more scientifically accepted term, “the frequency illusion.”
How it works
The frequency illusion is the result of two interacting psychological biases — selective attention, noticing things that are (currently) important to us and disregarding the rest; and confirmation bias, looking for information that supports our hypotheses and disregarding information that does not.
Selective attention is what allows us to get through the day without suffering from information overload. We are constantly being subjected to a barrage of sensory data but it’s just not possible to take it all in, so our brains have developed the ability to focus attention on certain elements of our environment while filtering the rest out. When we are exposed to brand-new information that we find interesting, our brains take notice and start to look for more examples of this fascinating newly-learned information.
This is when the confirmation bias kicks in. Because we think we’re seeing or hearing something over and over, we prioritize paying attention to that thing rather than to anything else. Now we notice it even more, and this confirms our belief that we really are seeing or hearing this new piece of information everywhere.
But this seems weird, so we rationalize it by telling ourselves that whatever it is that has caught our attention has suddenly popped up all over the place, and lots of people are discovering it at the same time. The frequency illusion is often accompanied by the recency illusion, also coined by Zwicky, which is the belief that something we have noticed only recently is, in fact, recent. The fact is, it’s probably been around for ages; we’ve just stopped ignoring it.
Compounding the problem is our inability to wrap our heads around the notion of randomness. Our brains are evolutionary wired to search for patterns, and we are predisposed to find them. Each time we recognize a pattern, we are rewarded with a hit of dopamine. This means we tend to find them even when they don’t exist, like when we think we’re enjoying a winning streak at the roulette table or seeing religious faces burned into toast. This is called apophenia or patternicity, and while our pattern-spotting talent is remarkably useful for learning, it can also make us attribute excessive importance to unremarkable events.
Considering how many different bits of information we are exposed to in any given day, it shouldn’t be surprising that we sometimes encounter the same thing again within a short period of time. However, we tend to grossly underestimate the probability of coincidences They actually happen a lot; we just don’t notice them most of the time because our attention is directed elsewhere. But our intuition tells us that such an explanation is inadequate. The fact that we just learned about something yesterday and now we’re seeing it everywhere feels like more than mere coincidence. It’s like the concept of synchronicity, a term coined by the psychoanalyst Carl Jung that refers to our tendency to believe that random events are more meaningful than they actually are, like when we think of someone we haven’t thought of for a long time and then run into them the next day. Both types of phenomena surprise us and make us wonder about the odds of such a thing happening. As it turns out, they’re much higher than you think.
The frequency illusion is considered quite harmless, although seeing the same person or hearing the same thing over and over could be problematic for people with mental health issues such as schizophrenia or paranoia.
The illusion can also be misused to secure our vote or make us part with our money by publicists and marketers who know that, when we notice something a lot, we tend to think it’s more popular or important than it actually is, and therefore bombard us with articles and adverts to get our attention.
The bias could also be problematic if a doctor learns of a rare medical condition and then starts to think they can see it in several more of their patients. Then again, they could be right. Take, for example, medical student Kush Purohit who learned of bovine aortic arch condition and then correctly identified three more cases within a day. He even wrote a paper about it.
How to avoid it
The frequency illusion is another example of a cognitive bias that you can’t avoid; you can only be aware that it happens. However, you can lessen the effect by being more mindful of your surroundings, and when something does catch your attention and you start seeing references to it everywhere, you simply have to remind yourself that you are probably just noticing it for the first time.