There’s a name for that phenomenon: Baader-Meinhof

Long story short:
Akil, who was very fond of art, enrolled for a sculpture class. As days went by, he started becoming comfortable and made quite a lot of friends in his class. Though he seemed to be a social jovial chap, he wasn’t yet able to interact with one of his class mate. Her name was Shravya. (You are free to imagine all the background scores you wish for a beau entry) She appeared to be a well mannered, reserved girl who didn’t interact much with people around. Thanks to significant efforts, Akil got into her good books and became good friends with her. Eventually he started feeling butterflies (Duh!), and within a few days, he became quite obsessed about her. Suddenly, Akil starts seeing the name of his crush everywhere. From the name of his neighbor’s cousin’s daughter, to his new college lecturer, he started coming across the name ‘Shravya’ every other day. So what exactly is happening here? Was he really so obsessed about her? Or was it his consciousness playing tricks on him?

You and I would have come across such incidents. Probably you didn’t see your crush/lover name everywhere, but maybe you started seeing the car you decided to buy everywhere around you. Or maybe you learnt an obscure word, and ever since then you have been seeing that exact word everywhere: from a random commercial on TV to your aunt using the word.

What is actually happening?

Sometimes we settle assuming all this to be coincidence. But things really go off the rails, when it is too coincidental to be true. These are the times we feel the world playing pranks on us. Unfortunately world really doesn’t revolve us. If this is happening, it most probably is because of Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon. This phenomenon occurs when the thing we’ve just noticed, experienced or been told about suddenly crops up constantly. Don’t worry, you’re not crazy. You are only just noticing it more.

Baader-Meinhof phenomenon occurs when the thing we've just noticed, experienced or been told about suddenly crops up constantly.

Basically our brain seems to be excited by the fact that we’ve learnt something new. In other words, selective attention occurs. Our brain subconsciously thinks, “Hey, that’s awesome! I’m going to look for that thing without actually thinking about it.” In reality, the world around us remained the same. The only change was in our head. Once our brain hears about it, we spot it. The change gives us a false illusion. To make it all the more powerful, confirmation bias occurs after seeing it even once or twice. In other words, we start agreeing with ourselves that, we’re definitely seeing it more. Since no researcher knew the reason for the phenomenon and no one had a better alternative, the name stuck on forever. However today, psychologists prefer the name frequency bias or frequency illusion, possibly due to the ease of pronunciation.
The right pronunciation of Baader Meinhof is baa-dur myn-hof.

Deer versus Guitar

Now let’s give our imagination some exercise.

Imagine we are looking at a computer screen with different items on it and are asked to do a ‘visual search’ Prior though, we are asked to first remember a particular item – let’s say a guitar. Then if we are asked to search for a deer in the screen, the presence of guitar act as a distractor. It makes us slower to find the deer than if the guitar was not there. So, even though the memory item – the guitar – is irrelevant to our visual search task, if it is present, it captures our attention, slowing our search for our target item (the deer).

Therefore, we see that something we hold in our mind draws our attention in the environment, in a way we don’t normally notice. This is an illustration of the unconscious influences on our attention.

More often than not Baader- Meinhof can be used at our advantage.
One such evident use it can be put at, is to improve marketing. Wondering how? Baader-Meinhof impacts the ways consumers think about products and services. When prospective customers for a business see a brand and product in one place, then begin seeing it soon after, in several others, it makes them more likely to trust the business, buy the products and subscribe to the services.

Can Baader-Meinhof be controlled?

The ‘Frequency Illusion’ shows the interaction of factors that direct our attention; what we are thinking about unconsciously guides us to relevant information in the environment. This 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.

Baader-Meinhof effect is one of the less harmful biases of the brain. It is easy to spot because when it occurs we’d be able to sense it.

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. Hence, we cannot overcome the Baader-Meinhof effect. However we can only control our actions by awareness. No matter what, we cannot train our mind to avoid observing/noticing the subconscious stimuli present in our environment. Evolution has wired our mind to function that way.

The frequency bias will occur often. Fortunately, it is one of the less harmful cognitive biases of the brain. It is easy to spot because when it occurs, we’d be able to sense it, unlike other cognitive bias which affects our decision making before we realise. So the next time Baader-Meinhof happens, let’s no fight it, but face it and proceed with caution, and not let it affect our decision.

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