What's the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon?

By: Kate Kershner & Austin Henderson  | 
Baader-Meinhof gang
West German police search for nine members of the Red Army Faction (also known as the Baader-Meinhof Group) in 1976. The terrorist group unwittingly gave its name to the phenomenon of a thing you've just noticed or experienced suddenly cropping up constantly. © Regis Bossu/Sygma/Corbis

Imagine this: You've just learned about a new car model, and suddenly, you start seeing it everywhere — on the road, in commercials, and even your neighbor just bought one. Is it a mere coincidence, or is there something more to it?

Welcome to the world of the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon, otherwise known as the frequency illusion. This cognitive bias occurs when something you've noticed or recently learned suddenly seems to appear everywhere. But is it really appearing more frequently, or is your brain just paying more attention to it?


Understanding the Phenomenon

The Baader-Meinhof effect involves two cognitive processes: selective attention and confirmation bias. Selective attention occurs when your brain subconsciously decides that something is important and starts noticing it more. Confirmation bias happens when you start to believe that something is more prevalent because you are seeing it more often, even if the frequency hasn't actually increased.

Selective Attention

When you learn something new or find something interesting, your brain deems it as important. This triggers your brain to subconsciously look for that thing without actively thinking about it. For example, if you learn a new word, your brain will subconsciously look for it, and you might start noticing it in books, articles or conversations.


Confirmation Bias

After noticing the thing once or twice, you start to agree with yourself that you are indeed seeing it more often. This is confirmation bias: the tendency to interpret new evidence as confirmation of one's existing beliefs or theories. So, even if the car, or the new word, isn't actually appearing with increased frequency, you start to believe it is because you are noticing it more [source: Pacific Standard].


The Origin of the Term

Interestingly, the term "Baader-Meinhof phenomenon" has nothing to do with the person who researched it or any scientific background. Instead, it is named after a West German terrorist group, the Baader-Meinhof gang, active in the 1970s.

The name was coined in 1994 by a commenter on the St. Paul, Minnesota, Pioneer Press online commenting board. The commenter had heard two references to the Baader-Meinhof gang within 24 hours and decided to name the frequency illusion after them [sources: BBC, Pioneer Press].


Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon vs. Recency Illusion

The Baader-Meinhof effect is often confused with the recency illusion, another cognitive bias noted by Stanford linguistics professor Arnold Zwicky in 2005. Zwicky wrote that the recency illusion is "the belief that things you have noticed only recently are, in fact, recent."

However, these are two different biases.


The recency illusion is about believing that something is newer than it actually is, while the term "frequency illusion, aka Baader-Meinhof effect, refers to noticing something more frequently after learning about it.

Examples and Real-life Applications

Example 1: The 'Same Car' Syndrome

You've probably experienced the Baader-Meinhof effect without even realizing it. Have you ever bought a new car or even just learned about a new car model, and then started seeing it everywhere? This is a classic example of the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon. Your brain is subconsciously looking for the car, and as a result, you start noticing it more.

Example 2: Learning a New Word

Another common example is when you learn a new word, and then suddenly start noticing it everywhere — in books, articles and conversations. This is because your brain has deemed the word as important and is subconsciously looking for it.


Real-Life Application: Marketing and Advertising

Understanding the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon is crucial for marketing and advertising professionals. By exposing potential customers to a product or brand multiple times, marketers can trigger the Baader-Meinhof effect, making people believe that the product or brand is more popular or widespread than it actually is.


Decoding Our Perceptions

The Baader-Meinhof phenomenon, or frequency illusion, is a fascinating cognitive bias that affects our perception of the frequency of objects, words or events. It involves selective attention and confirmation bias, and is often confused with the recency illusion.

Whether it's noticing the same car everywhere or suddenly seeing a recently learned word in every text, the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon is a reminder of the brain's power to shape our perception of the world around us.


Baader Meinhof FAQ

What does Baader-Meinhof mean?
The Baader Meinhof phenomenon is a cognitive bias in which people tend to see a particular thing everywhere after noticing it for the first time.
Why is it called the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon?
It all started in the comments section of a newspaper called the Minnesota St. Pauls Pioneer Press. During the 90s, one commenter talked about the Baader-Meinhof group, which was a West German terrorist organization, and within hours, he saw another reference to the group. Hence, the term was coined as the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon.
How do you pronounce Baader?
It's pronounced as bah-der. Together, the words are spoken as bah-der-myn-hof.
What is it called when you see something and then see it everywhere?
This is called the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon. However, it is also known as frequency illusion and frequency bias. It is the phenomenon in which something you saw for the first time starts to “appear” everywhere.

Lots More Information

Related Articles

  • BBC. "Who Were the Baader-Meinhof Gang?" Feb. 12, 2007. (Jan. 21, 2015) http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/6314559.stm
  • Pacific Standard. "There's a Name for That: The Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon." July 22, 2013. (Jan. 21, 2015) http://www.psmag.com/culture/theres-a-name-for-that-the-baader-meinhof-phenomenon-59670/
  • Pioneer Press. "The Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon? Or: The Joy Of Juxtaposition?" Feb. 23, 2007 (Aug 10, 2021) https://www.twincities.com/2007/02/23/the-baader-meinhof-phenomenon-or-the-joy-of-juxtaposition-responsorial-23-23-23-23-23-23-23-23-23-23-23-23-23-23-23-23-23-23-23-23-23-23-23/
  • Zwicky, Arnold. "Just Between Dr. Language and I." University of Pennsylvania. Aug. 7, 2005. (Jan. 21, 2015) http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/002386.html