Cognitive Biases And Militants: The Baader-Meinhoff Phenomenon

Has a friend ever recommended a song an obscure Art Pop Indie band for you to listen to, and all of sudden, you hear this song everywhere? In a TV commercial, or a random stranger humming it in some café you just happened to visit? Or have you ever noticed a woman with a funny haircut, after which, this woman seems to keep popping up wherever you go? Have you ever come across a particular word for the first time, for example, the term Brumous, which is defined as ‘of grey skies and winter days, filled with heavy clouds or fog; relating to winter or cold, sunless weather’.  The next day, you see this word in a novel you’re reading, and the next day, you see it in a textbook. And you begin to wonder how you could have lived so many years of your life without ever seeing the word Brumous, and now, in the last week, you have seen the thrice already. Are these incidents a cosmic coincident? Some sort of conspiracy?

The Baader-Meinhoff Phenomenon

In reality, you are more likely experiencing the Frequency Illusion, also known by its more colloquial term, The Baader-Meinhoff Phenomenon. Your mind is not playing tricks on you. This is just the effect of the recency illusion. The term Baader-Meinhoff Phenomenon has a rather uncanny origin. Interestingly, it wasn’t named after the man who introduced it to the word. Baader-Meinhoff was actually a far-left terrorist group that was functional in Germany during the 1970s. The St. Paul’s Pioneer Press became the unlikely source for the term in the early 1990s when a commenter coined the term after hearing multiple references to the militant group in less than 24 hours after learning about its existence.

The more scientifically acceptable name, The Frequency Illusion, was devised by a researcher and Stanford linguistics professor, Arnold Zwicky, almost a decade later. The Baader-Meinhoff Phenomenon is a term used to describe instances when an individual chances upon a novel or newly discovered, obscure, unfamiliar pieces of information. This recently discovered bit of information happens to appear or pop up repeatedly in the observer’s life. Suddenly it’s everywhere. Most experience this at least a few times in their life. To many, it is a consistent occurrence.

Cognitive Biases 

The phenomenon is a combination of three things – selective attention, cognitive bias and confirmation bias. The brain yearns for order. It is essentially a pattern seeking and pattern forming machine that has a prejudice for shortcuts. When the brain acquires any new information, it could be a person, a concept or a word, it remains fresh in the Short Term Memory. Later, any occurrences with that newly acquired information, or related to that information, tends to stand out against all other background noise. This is a cognitive bias, where inferences about situations are drawn in an illogical fashion. After this, a confirmation bias occurs, which is the propensity to interpret new evidence as confirmation of one’s prevailing views or theories, making us truly believe that we’re seeing and or hearing, more of it. We create patterns when in reality, there are none.

This is highly useful when it comes to learning. We are exposed to a plethora of information in a day, and sometimes we encounter the same information again after a short period of time, and the frequency illusion takes place, and help us to remember the incident. An unconscious search to help us gain new information.

Unnoticed Patterns

But we also fail to notice the numerous nuances that aren’t repeated. Events that do not conform to a pattern go unnoticed, and this is where selective attention comes into play. Countless things can go by completely ignored, overlooked. The increased importance of recently encountered objects makes one more aware of it the next time they come across it. These little coincidences, amplified by the recency effect, essentially expand our perception of the world and expand our reality, as we notice more things. This goes to show how ignorance can be maintained by the lack of learning, as we only see the things that we are unconsciously looking out for. The more you prime your mind by reading and learning, the more you’ll see or notice new patterns, and reality will unfold itself, right in front of you.

The article is written by Potus.

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