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The Frequency Illusion (Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon)

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The frequency illusion, also known as the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon, is “a cognitive bias that affects how we think and process information.” The name Baader–Meinhof phenomenon was coined in 1994 by Terry Mullen in a letter to the St. Paul Pioneer Press.

Have you seen a yellow car and suddenly it seems like every other car on the road or in pictures online is yellow? You’ve just experienced the Baader-Mainhof phenomenon. In reality, the yellow car wasn’t anymore common before, but your brain has become “sensitized” to it. The increased attention makes it appear like the yellow car appears more often. It’s a common trick of the brain that plays on us, and understanding the phenomenon can help you navigate your perception of the world.

How frequency illusion happens

First, you encounter something new like an object, a person, a word, etc. The brain then marks it as important. Next, you seek more information about it, turning out other things. Then any similar sightings get amplified no matter how vague or inaccurate it is. As time goes by, your memory is distorted, making it feel like it was always there. Finally, this creates an illusion where the thing is appearing more often than it actually does.

Why does it happen?

New information triggers. Your brain is continuously absorbing new information and sorting it. It marks new experiences as significant and becomes more alert when it comes across something unusual, like the uncommon bird.

Selective attention. Your brain becomes a detective, actively seeking for fresh information in your surroundings. It blocks out other distractions to concentrate on this precise topic.

Confirmation bias. Now that your brain is searching for the bird, all comparable sightings are enhanced. Even a fuzzy photo or a distant chirp is perceived as proof of its regular appearance.

Memory distortion. Our recollections tend to become clearer and more precise over time, compared to how they were actually experienced. This can make it appear as if the bird was always present, even when it wasn’t.

False frequency. The combination of these elements creates the illusion that new information is appearing more frequently than it is. It’s a mental shortcut that can be helpful but also misleading.

frequency illusion stand out color
Which color stands out for you? Image by Freepik.

It’s not paranormal activity

The frequency illusion is a common cognitive bias and it’s not a sign of any paranormal activity. Being aware of the phenomenon helps you critically evaluate information, thereby helping you avoid jumping into conclusions. Don’t let frequency illusion, however, dampen your curiosity and instead let it help you maintain healthy skepticism.

Knowing why the frequency illusion happens empowers us to be more critical thinkers.

Applying the frequency illusion in life

One thing I learned about the frequency illusion is that anyone can apply it in life. As I wrote in my previous post: the more you look for the positive things, the more it will appear. When we pay more attention to things that have recently become important to us, like finding the good things, then the more we attract the same things.

The fact is, it doesn’t hurt to find the positive things everyday. All it takes is just to be human.

To reiterate, the Yellow Car Phenomenon is more than just a wish, rather, it teaches us to be more aware of the great experiences that make life meaningful.

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