What is the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon?

Professor Anina Rich
As told to Sarah Maguire
22 July 2020
Faculty of Medicine, Health and Human Sciences


It feels uncanny, but is in fact all about how our attention works, says Anina Rich, Professor in the Department of Cognitive Science.

We’ve all been there. An obscure word we’ve never seen before captures our attention. Then, suddenly, we start to see that word pop up all over the place. Or you’re thinking about buying a particular car, and you begin noticing the same make and model seemingly everywhere.

Second take: Seeing the same car everywhere is one example of the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon at work.

It is known as the Frequency Illusion or Bias and, more informally, the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon. The latter coining was apparently by a newspaper reader in Minnesota, US, who, in a letter to the newspaper in 1994 described it as a phenomenon in which, after the first time you learn a new word, phrase or idea, you see that word, phrase or idea again within 24 hours.

It was named after an incident in which the reader, Terry Mullen, was talking to a friend about the once notorious West German Baader-Meinhof gang, and the next day, the friend referred Mullen to an article in that day’s newspaper in which the left-wing terrorist organisation was mentioned, decades after it had any reason to be in the news.

We need to be responsive to what happens in the environment in order to stay safe. At the same time, if we can’t ignore our surroundings, we wouldn’t be able to complete any tasks.

More than 10 years later, the term Frequency Illusion was coined by Stanford linguist Arnold Zwicky. Essentially, the Frequency Illusion is a perception that something you’ve been thinking about, or recently learned, all of a sudden seems much more frequent in your environment than it was before.

There are two parts to it. One part is the perception of increased frequency; the second part is a confirmation bias where you believe that it didn’t happen before at the same frequency. But in reality, the frequency hasn’t changed, you just weren’t noticing it because your attention wasn’t being drawn to it.

There aren’t many scientific papers about Frequency Illusion, but the effect closely resembles ‘working memory-driven attentional capture’, which I’ve studied to explore how attention is guided. This is a way of describing what happens when something you are holding in mind influences where your attention goes.

Cat versus piano

Imagine you are looking at a computer screen with different items on it, a ‘visual search’ display. If I ask you to first remember a particular item, say a piano, and then I show you a visual search display and ask you to look for a cat, the presence of a piano as a distractor in the display makes you slower to find the cat than if the piano is not there.

Mind games: Seeing a word for the first time, then again soon after, is a common experience of the phenomenon.

So, even though the memory item – the piano – is irrelevant to your visual search task, if it is present, it captures your attention, slowing your search for your target item (the cat). We can use visual search times to look at how attention is guided under different conditions.

Working memory-driven attentional capture is very similar to what is happening in the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon: something you are holding in your mind then draws your attention to that thing in the environment in a way you don’t normally notice. It is a nice illustration of the unconscious influences on where our attention goes.

Competing for your attention

Where attention is deployed at any given moment is a dynamic interaction between what is happening in the world around you and what your current goal is. Voluntary attention allows us to select information that is relevant to what we are doing right now. Involuntary capture of attention happens when something else external draws our attention from that task.

In an evolutionary sense, we need to be responsive to what happens in the environment in order to stay safe. But at the same time, if we can’t effectively ignore our surroundings, we wouldn’t be able to complete any tasks. And attention is crucial for learning and for memory – if you are not paying attention to something you are not going to remember it.

One of my research topics is the interaction between where you want your attention to go – that is, the task you are currently focusing on – and what is happening in the environment – that is, what captures your attention without your volition.

The Frequency Illusion shows the interaction of factors that direct your attention; what you are thinking about unconsciously guides you to relevant information in the environment. It shows how important it is to understand how attention works – it is fundamental to everything we do, and has a major influence on what we perceive around us.

Our ability to function in our complex world relies crucially on the capacity to select what’s relevant and ignore what’s irrelevant at any given moment. That’s why I study attention!

Anina Rich is a Professor in the Department of Cognitive Science.


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