“Wait, What?”: Our Team’s Thoughts on the Frequency Illusion

It happens all the time. You hear a new word and all of a sudden you're reading and hearing it everywhere. It's called the frequency illusion.

Future of Work

It happens all the time. You hear a new word and all of a sudden you’re reading and hearing it everywhere. It’s called the Baader-Meinhoff phenomenon, or the frequency illusion.

But what is this phenomenon, or illusion, all about really?

We debated this with the team in a weekly discussion that we have about random but interesting topics every week: “Wait, what?”. Since we select a topic to discuss each week, based on nothing more than what interests us, or what we’re passionate about, it’s often something that has to do with thinking, and the general mayhem that goes on in all of our brains on a regular basis.

And we like talking, and thinking about, how our brains work.

This particular conversation started after one of our team members from Dublin shared that once she had decided to go to a certain town in Spain for a vacation, all of a sudden everyone she knew was telling her that they’d spent time there, without her having a clue that they knew it existed before. And this happened with people she sees often, and is convinced she knows really, really well.

Another frequency illusion shared was seeing the name of an ex-boyfriend on trash can advertisements everywhere. An ex-boyfriend that just happens to have the same name as a very popular, and advertisement-savvy hardware store, that has an apparently effective presence all over the suburbs of Johannesburg, South Africa.

What is happening here? Are we really experiencing an increased frequency in these events or words in our lives, or is it only because our brain is now aware of them, that when it becomes aware of them again, they seem to be popping up everywhere?

Apparently it’s got to do with our brain’s ability to recognise patterns in an overwhelming amount of data, and confirmation bias, and the fact that our brains can get excited when they learn something new, so pick up new patterns easily. So really, the information could have been there before but it’s only now that you’ve become aware of it that you notice it. Confirmation bias comes in and convinces you that you’re seeing it more, when really, it could have been there all along, and you just never noticed it.

As for why it’s called the Baader-Meinhoff phenomenon, it’s apparently because a newspaper editor had the same experience with news alerts about the Baader-Meinhoff gang when they were a hot topic in the news. It could have been anything really, but maybe the name just sounded cool, and stuck, who knows? It’s confusing, but it has nothing to do with the actual Baader-Meinhoff gang itself, which was a radical German political movement in the 1970s.

You’ll probably start seeing the word everywhere now, at least now you know why!

For more updates on what we talk about, keep an eye out on our social media feeds for upcoming posts from our “Wait, What?” series (that we have most weeks) on Twitter, Facebook and Linkedin.

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