February 20th 2018

Today I learnt about the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon; a cognitive bias where you learn/notice about something, and then start seeing/hearing that thing more frequently than ever before.

I stumbled across the phrase in some research, and couldn’t let it go without finding it out what it meant. It’s also known as the ‘frequency illusion’ but that doesn’t make it interesting to you. It turns out, that this phrase explains lots of the questions I’ve had about life.

Consider this example:

When you buy a new car, you begin to see that car more often than you ever did before you owned that car.

Does that sound familiar? I know I’ve experienced it with both of the cars I’ve owned. I remember saying “I see this car everywhere now!” to my girlfriend when I got a Ford Fiesta last year. It felt like I was seeing the car all the time now, definitely more often than I did before I bought it.

Except that’s probably not true. And that’s the frequency illusion.

The chances are, I saw Fiestas all the time before I had one. It’s literally the UK’s most popular car, after all (or so said the guy who sold it to me, but I wouldn’t trust him as a source). But before I had a Fiesta, seeing Fiestas didn’t really register with me. In fact, seeing so many Fiestas might have even subconsciously persuaded me to buy one, but that’s a different phenomenon.

Frequency illusion is an explanation for coincidence.

Here’s another real life example.

At dinner the other night, Alice and I somehow started talking about a girl we used to know at school. Her name was one I hadn’t heard in years (For the sake of this, we’ll call her Abbie, because that is her real name), but she came up somehow in conversation.

The next day I was scrolling through my Instagram feed and was flabbergasted to see Abbie’s name in Instagram’s suggested “People you should follow” section. It was a huge coincidence. We’d been speaking about her only the night before, and then her name popped up on my Instagram feed the very next day.

We freaked out a little bit to begin with. Conspiracy theories and all. Alice has just got a new phone, so we thought maybe the phone had heard us mention her name, and then some kind of Google-Facebook-speech-to-code-algorithm had made her a suggested follow on my Instagram. Proper tin hat stuff.

Or, it was the frequency illusion in effect.

Thinking about it objectively, it’s extremely possible that her name has been in my “Suggested follows” list for months, I just hadn’t mentally noted it as significant.

Even though I’ve not spoken to her in years, we’re Facebook friends with 100+ friends in common. Instagram is owned by Facebook, and my two accounts are connected. It’s not unreasonable to assume that Instagram was just suggesting I follow people with whom I am Facebook-friends. In fact, it’s likely.

Except my brain didn’t see it like that and immediately went all tin-hat Baader-Meinhof and assumed that the FBI were spying on my date night.

So in a weird way, learning about frequency illusion has soothed me. I hate magic because I don’t understand how it works, and learning about frequency illusion feels like learning the secrets behind a magic trick.

Until tomorrow, suddenly the world makes a bit more sense, and it’s comforting.


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