You Will See Baader-Meinhof Everywhere Soon

After hearing or seeing something new for the first time, the frequency illusion, also called the Baader-Meinhof phenomena, may cause you to notice this new thing all around you. Michele Paccione/Shutterstock

In psychology, to co-opt an old Steve Martin gag about the French, there's a different term for everything.

Think you’ve seen it before? Déjà vu.

It must be true, because my dad/teacher/preacher says it's true? Confirmation bias.

The trip coming back from somewhere seems quicker than going there? The return trip effect.

With all the terminology floating around, it's always best to be careful when dealing with psychology. The wording, not to mention the concepts, can mess with your mind a little.

Take, for example, the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon.

Baader-Meinhof is the colloquial name attached to a quirky, though simple, psychological concept that we've probably all experienced at one time or another. It's the perception of discovering something new — a car, a name, a word you've never seen or heard before — and then, amazingly, seeing it all over the place soon after you discover it.

You didn't know it existed. And then, seemingly, it's everywhere you turn.

How the term "Baader-Meinhof" became associated with this phenomenon is far from simple or scientific, though.

The Baader-Meinhof Group, or Baader-Meinhof Gang, was a leftist West German militant group from the 1970s also known as the Red Army Faction. The RAF was a terrorist organization, according to the German government, which carried out bombings throughout the nation.

One report says the name of the terrorist group first was linked to the psychological concept in, of all places, the comments section of an online article.

If that’s true, the common name for this particular mind-bending occurrence — a name that has become so well-accepted that it appears in the Urban Dictionary — probably came about because someone, somewhere had no idea what Baader-Meinhof was.

One day, this person first heard about the left-wing radical group. Then it was everywhere. The person dubbed it a "Baader-Meinhof" experience. Somehow, it stuck. So, in theory, what is now known as Baader-Meinhof could well have been called The Steve Martin Phenomenon (he was also big in the 1970s) or the ABBA Experience — if this someone had never heard of the comic actor or the 1970s Swedish pop band.

Cognitive toe-stubs

Scientifically, the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon is one of a group of "cognitive biases." A cognitive bias is a toe-stub in thinking that our brains make when processing information.

Example: Hindsight bias (also known as the "I knew it all along" bias) is the tendency to think that, looking back on an event, we should have seen it coming — even though there may be no rational reason that we actually should have known what was going to happen.

Back in the time of Steve Martin, ABBA and the Baader-Meinhof Gang — those wild '70s — two scholars, Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman, introduced the term cognitive bias “to describe people's systematic but purportedly flawed patterns of responses to judgment and decision problems.”

A whole list of cognitive biases is now recognized, and one, specifically, is in play with what we now call (in the non-scientific world) the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon. This cognitive bias is called "frequency illusion."

Arnold Zwicky, a Stanford linguist, is credited with coining that term, writing that, "people who are reflective about language — professional linguists, people who set themselves up as authorities on language, and ordinary people who are simply interested in language — are especially prone to the Frequency Illusion."

Zwicky points out a pair of underlying cognitive biases that form frequency illusion. (Or, if you insist, Baader-Meinhof.)

"The Frequency Illusion is a result of two well-known psychological processes, selective attention (noticing things that are salient to us, disregarding the rest) and confirmation bias (looking for things that support our hypotheses, disregarding potential counterevidence)..."

So seeing something new, then seemingly seeing it over and over again shortly after you first notice it — frequency illusion, Baader-Meinhof, whatever you want to call it — is an actual, scholarly-recognized psychological phenomenon.

Even if, in reality, it's just your mind messing with you.