The Baader Meinhof phenomenon

The Baader Meinhof phenomenon

41 years have passed since the deaths of members of the Baader Meinhof gang in Stammheim. Whilst you may not have heard of them lately, or at all, you will have experienced the Baader Meinhof phenomenon.

The Baader Meinhof phenomenon got its name around 25 years ago during a discussion on an early online discussion board. A contributor noted that after reading about the Red Army Faction terrorist group members he’d then heard their names twice in the next 24 hours.

The more technical, but less popular, name for this effect is the ‘frequency illusion’. This is the effect, when we learn a new fact or come across a new word, that we seem to notice it occurring in other places and conversations too.

It’s not the coincidence it seems though – in fact the Baader Meinhof phenomenon is the combination of a number of unconscious biases in the way we think.

Firstly there’s ‘pattern recognition’ in which we unconsciously look for connections and then ascribe meaning to them. In this case that would be hearing about the Red Army Faction in separate, but repeated, instances over a day or two.

As pattern recognition is rewarded by the brain we can also fall foul of ‘attentional bias’. Here we fail to give equal weight to all of the information we have, but concentrate on that which already interests us. This has the effect of skewing our focus towards what we come to see as ‘coincidental’.

It’s the short length of time that’s important here too. The ‘recency effect’ sees us ascribe more value and weight to those things that we have just learned or heard. This is why the repetition, and assumed pattern, needs to be in a short period of time for us to register it. If we heard about the Baader Meinhof gang three times a year it wouldn’t enter our consciousness in the same way.

Finally, ‘confirmation bias’, our tendency to think that we’re right, then nails on our perception that that the reoccurrence of the word or idea involved is genuinely noteworthy.

In a nutshell these are the mechanics behind the Baader Meinhof phenomenon – just our attempt to impose some order and meaning on the mass of information we receive every day.

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