The Public Relations BlogMedia & PsychologySocial PsychologyThe Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon: Heard About It Before?

The Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon: Heard About It Before?

Chances are that you will hear about this effect again, soon.

Cover photo: @jerrysilfwer


Ever heard of the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon?

Well, the chances are that you’ll hear about it again soon.

The Baader-Meinhof phe­nomen­on (also known as “fre­quency illu­sion”) is when you notice some­thing, per­haps some­thing out of the ordin­ary, like com­ing across an unusu­al name, hear­ing a song, or learn­ing the name of an act­or you have nev­er seen before.

Suddenly, that thing you noticed for the first time just yes­ter­day star­ted appear­ing from nowhere, both here and there, like some short-term déjà vu.

What’s going on here?

The Brain’s Quest for Novelty

Most of us have exper­i­enced the Baader-Meinhof phe­nomen­on — I know I have.

I exper­i­ence it all the time.
And that’s not an exaggeration.

Since I’m not super­sti­tious, I’ve always taken for gran­ted that it has some­thing to do with a psy­cho­lo­gic­al fal­lacy or bias — like con­firm­a­tion bias. 1Confirmation bias. (2023, December 6). In Wikipedia. https://​en​.wiki​pe​dia​.org/​w​i​k​i​/​C​o​n​f​i​r​m​a​t​i​o​n​_​b​ias

However, con­firm­a­tion bias, a widely known and well-stud­ied psy­cho­lo­gic­al fal­lacy, doesn’t account for the whole exper­i­ence of the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon.

Let’s say that I walk by a store, and from with­in that store; I hear a rather unusu­al song from the ’80s that I haven’t heard in ages. I used to love it, but I had for­got­ten about it.

I hear the song repeatedly in the fol­low­ing weeks — and always by chance. How weird.

Suppose we were to explain these occur­rences using the fal­lacy of con­firm­a­tion bias alone. In that case, we must con­clude that I’ve always encountered this rel­at­ively rare song from the ’80s without con­sciously noti­cing it.

But how can that be — espe­cially if the song is rel­at­ively obscure?

The Frequency Illusion

According to Stanford lin­guist pro­fess­or Arnold Zwicky, who coined the term fre­quency illu­sion for this phe­nomen­on in 2006, some­thing else hap­pens before your con­firm­a­tion bias kicks in. 2Many would say that Arnold Zwicky is one of the most influ­en­tial lin­guists in the United States, if not the world. After receiv­ing his PhD in Linguistics from Stanford in 1955, he began teach­ing at … Continue read­ing

When some­thing nov­el sparks an emo­tion­al reac­tion, your brain act­ively scans for what you notice. Unconsciously, your brain is act­ively seek­ing that song — wherever you go.

How does the Baader-Meinhof phe­nomen­on affect us?

The Baader-Meinhof phe­nomen­on made it into the open inter­net and has become pecu­li­ar. It could fuel para­noia and oth­er unhealthy states if you have a men­tal illness. 

But there are pos­it­ive examples, too.

In 2019, third-year med­ic­al stu­dent Kush Purohit wrote a let­ter to the edit­or of Academic Radiology to talk about his own exper­i­ence. Having just learned of a con­di­tion called “bovine aor­tic arch,” he went on to dis­cov­er three more cases with­in the next 24 hours. Purohit sug­ges­ted that tak­ing advant­age of psy­cho­lo­gic­al phe­nom­ena such as Baader-Meinhof could bene­fit stu­dents of radi­ology, help­ing them to learn basic search pat­terns as well as the skills to identi­fy find­ings that oth­ers may over­look.”
Source: Healthline

The German Terrorist Group

Why do we call it the Baader-Meinhof phe­nomen­on and not the fre­quency effect?

A com­menter in the St. Paul Pioneer Press online for­um used the more pop­u­lar term Baader-Meinhof phe­nomen­on after hear­ing about the ultra-left-wing ter­ror­ist group Baader-Meinhof Gang, also known as the Red Army Faction (RAF), twice in 24 hours. 3In the 1970s, a rad­ic­al group called the Baader-Meinhof Gang wreaked hav­oc in West Germany. Led by Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof, the group sought to bring about drastic social and polit­ic­al … Continue read­ing

The Baader-Meinhof phe­nomen­on has noth­ing to do with the ter­ror­ist group that wreaked hav­oc in Germany in the ’70s. One could make the case that it’s not ideal to ref­er­ence a group of ter­ror­ists. The phe­nomen­on could have as well have been named any­thing else. But it stuck.

Perceiving Patterns Amidst the Noise

So, what about that obscure song from the ’80s, then? The Baader-Meinhof phe­nomen­on, the cog­nit­ive bias that impacts our per­cep­tion of fre­quency, might be at play. 

Our brains are con­stantly scan­ning for new and recently dis­covered stim­uli. In the pro­cess, we may encounter hun­dreds of poten­tial instances of the Baader-Meinhof phe­nomen­on over a week. However, only a hand­ful of these instances will resur­face with­in that time frame. This select­ive per­cep­tion can be attrib­uted to our brain’s inher­ent desire for nov­elty and abil­ity to sub­con­sciously fil­ter out less per­tin­ent information.

The Baader-Meinhof phe­nomen­on kicks in when we notice a pat­tern, such as hear­ing the same obscure song repeatedly. Our brains focus on this spe­cif­ic stim­u­lus, mak­ing it seem as though we are encoun­ter­ing it more fre­quently than before. In real­ity, the song may have been play­ing in the back­ground of our lives all along, but we failed to notice it until our atten­tion was drawn to it.

As we nav­ig­ate our lives, our brains sub­con­sciously fil­ter out inform­a­tion that does not imme­di­ately per­tain to our interests or exper­i­ences. This cog­nit­ive fil­ter­ing plays a crit­ic­al role in the Baader-Meinhof phe­nomen­on, allow­ing us to hone in on spe­cif­ic stim­uli while dis­reg­ard­ing oth­ers. Consequently, we may per­ceive that we encounter cer­tain instances of the phe­nomen­on more fre­quently than oth­ers, even though they may all be equally pre­val­ent in our lives.

Cognitive Filtering and Its Impact on Perception

We live in an inter­con­nec­ted soci­ety. We shouldn’t under­es­tim­ate the chaot­ic net­work effects.

Maybe many people in your area heard that same song on the radio that day. Maybe lots of them reacted in the same way I did.

There’s a pos­sib­il­ity that your ini­tial feel­ing indeed is right; a tiny spark could lead to a but­ter­fly effect and increase the like­li­hood of you encoun­ter­ing the same thing soon again due to this spread­ing chain of events. 4We all get caught by cook­ies while search­ing for vari­ous web pages. And we’ve crossed paths on this par­tic­u­lar web page, right? Without noti­cing it, algorithms might amp­li­fy the Baader-Meinhof … Continue read­ing

The Baader-Meinhof phe­nomen­on, a fas­cin­at­ing cog­nit­ive bias, influ­ences our per­cep­tion of fre­quency and pre­val­ence, often leav­ing us with the impres­sion that we encounter newly dis­covered stim­uli more often than we do. 

By under­stand­ing the under­ly­ing mech­an­isms of this phe­nomen­on, we can bet­ter appre­ci­ate the com­plex work­ings of our brains and the subtle ways in which cog­nit­ive biases shape our per­cep­tion of reality.

The Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon

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The Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon

The Baader-Meinhof phe­nomen­on, also known as the “fre­quency illu­sion” or “recency bias,” occurs when some­thing you have recently noticed or exper­i­enced crops sud­denly up repeatedly in your daily life.

This cog­nit­ive bias could affect your decision-mak­ing and perception:

  • After pur­chas­ing a new product or ser­vice: When you pur­chase a new product or ser­vice, you may sud­denly start noti­cing it every­where. This heightened aware­ness can be attrib­uted to the Baader-Meinhof phe­nomen­on. Being con­scious of this cog­nit­ive bias will help you main­tain a bal­anced per­spect­ive and avoid over­es­tim­at­ing the pop­ular­ity of your purchase.
  • Learning a new concept or term: Upon encoun­ter­ing a new concept or term, you may find it repeatedly appear­ing in con­ver­sa­tions, art­icles, or present­a­tions. This fre­quency illu­sion res­ults from increased aware­ness and atten­tion to the new inform­a­tion. Recognizing the Baader-Meinhof phe­nomen­on in this con­text can pre­vent you from over­em­phas­iz­ing its import­ance or assum­ing it is more widely known than it is.
  • Adopting new man­age­ment prac­tices: When embra­cing new man­age­ment tech­niques, you might feel that they sud­denly become the top­ic of con­ver­sa­tion in your industry. The Baader-Meinhof phe­nomen­on can cause you to over­es­tim­ate the pre­val­ence and effect­ive­ness of these prac­tices. Awareness of this bias helps main­tain a bal­anced view and encour­ages fur­ther explor­a­tion of altern­at­ive methods.
  • Trendspotting in mar­ket research: The Baader-Meinhof phe­nomen­on can lead ana­lysts to over­es­tim­ate the sig­ni­fic­ance of emer­ging trends. As a res­ult, com­pan­ies may invest in less influ­en­tial trends than anti­cip­ated. By acknow­ledging the pres­ence of this cog­nit­ive bias, research­ers can mit­ig­ate its impact and make more informed decisions.
  • Networking and build­ing pro­fes­sion­al rela­tion­ships: When you meet someone new, you may feel that their name or com­pany appears in your circles more fre­quently. The Baader-Meinhof phe­nomen­on can cre­ate a false sense of con­nec­tion or import­ance, poten­tially influ­en­cing your pro­fes­sion­al decisions. Awareness of this cog­nit­ive bias can help you make object­ive assess­ments when build­ing rela­tion­ships and eval­u­at­ing partnerships.

The Baader-Meinhof phe­nomen­on is a com­mon cog­nit­ive bias that affects our per­cep­tion of fre­quency and pre­val­ence. By recog­niz­ing its pres­ence in vari­ous aspects of life, indi­vidu­als and organ­iz­a­tions can make more informed decisions, main­tain a bal­anced per­spect­ive, and avoid over­em­phas­iz­ing the import­ance of newly acquired information.

Learn more: The Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon

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PR Resource: The Anatomy of Attention

There’s only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.”
— Oscar Wilde

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The Anatomy of Attention

Attention is an essen­tial com­pon­ent of pub­lic relations:

  • An organ­isa­tion, starved of atten­tion, trust, and loy­alty, is com­pelled to wage a per­petu­al struggle for its con­tin­ued existence.

And it’s not just organ­isa­tions. We all seem to crave atten­tion in some form or another:

People want to be loved; fail­ing that admired; fail­ing that feared; fail­ing that hated and des­pised. They want to evoke some sort of sen­ti­ment. The soul shud­ders before obli­vi­on and seeks con­nec­tion at any price.”
— Hjalmar Söderberg (1869−1941), Swedish author

It’s fear of social isol­a­tion— and atten­tion star­va­tion.

But what con­sti­tutes ‘atten­tion’?

Attention is a com­plex, real neur­al archi­tec­ture (‘RNA’) mod­el that integ­rates vari­ous cog­nit­ive mod­els and brain cen­ters to per­form tasks like visu­al search.”
Source: Trends in cog­nit­ive sci­ences 5Shipp, S. (2004). The brain cir­cuitry of atten­tion. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 8, 223 – 230. https://​doi​.org/​1​0​.​1​0​1​6​/​j​.​t​i​c​s​.​2​0​0​4​.​0​3​.​004

Each of the below terms refers to a spe­cif­ic aspect or type of atten­tion (“men­tal band­width”), a com­plex cog­nit­ive pro­cess. 6Schweizer, K., Moosbrugger, H., & Goldhammer, F. (2005). The struc­ture of the rela­tion­ship between atten­tion and intel­li­gence. Intelligence, 33(6), 589 – 611. … Continue read­ing

Let’s explore dif­fer­ent types of attention:

  • Alertness. This is the state of being watch­ful and ready to respond. It’s the most basic form of atten­tion, rep­res­ent­ing our read­i­ness to per­ceive and pro­cess inform­a­tion from the environment.
  • Sustained atten­tion. This involves focus­ing on a spe­cif­ic task or stim­u­lus over a pro­longed peri­od. It’s cru­cial for tasks that require ongo­ing con­cen­tra­tion, like read­ing or driving.
  • Focused atten­tion. This refers to the abil­ity to con­cen­trate on one par­tic­u­lar stim­u­lus or task while ignor­ing oth­ers. It’s the abil­ity to focus nar­rowly on a single thing.
  • Attentional switch­ing. Also known as task switch­ing or cog­nit­ive flex­ib­il­ity, this involves shift­ing focus from one task to anoth­er. It’s crit­ic­al for mul­ti­task­ing and adapt­ing to chan­ging demands or priorities.
  • Divided atten­tion. This is the abil­ity to pro­cess two or more responses or react to mul­tiple tasks sim­ul­tan­eously. It’s often tested by ask­ing people to per­form two tasks sim­ul­tan­eously, like listen­ing to a con­ver­sa­tion while writ­ing.
  • Attention accord­ing to the super­vis­ory atten­tion­al sys­tem. This concept, derived from cog­nit­ive psy­cho­logy, refers to a high­er-level con­trol sys­tem that reg­u­lates the alloc­a­tion of atten­tion, par­tic­u­larly in situ­ations requir­ing plan­ning or decision-making.
  • Attention as inhib­i­tion. This aspect of atten­tion involves sup­press­ing irrel­ev­ant or dis­tract­ing stim­uli. It’s a cru­cial com­pon­ent of focused atten­tion and self-regulation.
  • Spatial atten­tion. This type of atten­tion focuses on a spe­cif­ic area with­in the visu­al field. It’s like a spot­light that enhances inform­a­tion pro­cessing in a par­tic­u­lar location.
  • Attention as plan­ning. This per­spect­ive views atten­tion as a resource that needs to be alloc­ated effi­ciently, espe­cially in com­plex tasks requir­ing stra­tegic plan­ning and organization.
  • Interference. In the con­text of atten­tion, inter­fer­ence refers to the pro­cess by which irrel­ev­ant inform­a­tion or dis­trac­tions impede the effi­ciency of cog­nit­ive processing.
  • Attention as arous­al. This con­siders atten­tion in the con­text of the gen­er­al level of alert­ness or arous­al. It’s about the read­i­ness of the brain to engage with stim­uli or tasks.
  • Attention accord­ing to the assess­ment tra­di­tion. This refers to meas­ur­ing and eval­u­at­ing atten­tion­al pro­cesses, often in clin­ic­al or edu­ca­tion­al set­tings, to identi­fy atten­tion defi­cits or disorders.

Each type of atten­tion plays a cru­cial role in how we inter­act with and pro­cess inform­a­tion from our envir­on­ment, and under­stand­ing these dif­fer­ent aspects is key in fields like psy­cho­logy, neur­os­cience, and education.

Learn more: The Anatomy of Attention

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1 Confirmation bias. (2023, December 6). In Wikipedia. https://​en​.wiki​pe​dia​.org/​w​i​k​i​/​C​o​n​f​i​r​m​a​t​i​o​n​_​b​ias
2 Many would say that Arnold Zwicky is one of the most influ­en­tial lin­guists in the United States, if not the world. After receiv­ing his PhD in Linguistics from Stanford in 1955, he began teach­ing at UC Berkeley, where he remained for many years. He’s well known for his work in syn­tact­ic and semantics. His research interests include English syn­tax, prag­mat­ics, semantics, phon­o­logy, mor­pho­logy, and syn­tax-phon­o­logy interface.
3 In the 1970s, a rad­ic­al group called the Baader-Meinhof Gang wreaked hav­oc in West Germany. Led by Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof, the group sought to bring about drastic social and polit­ic­al changes, and they tar­geted prom­in­ent fig­ures in soci­ety and gov­ern­ment offi­cials. The gang staged kid­nap­pings, assas­sin­a­tions, bomb­ings and bank rob­ber­ies, even plant­ing bombs so power­ful they would flat­ten entire city blocks.
4 We all get caught by cook­ies while search­ing for vari­ous web pages. And we’ve crossed paths on this par­tic­u­lar web page, right? Without noti­cing it, algorithms might amp­li­fy the Baader-Meinhof effect all the time. But if you want to make sure, you can always do what I did and fol­low the Baader-Meinhof Facebook page.
5 Shipp, S. (2004). The brain cir­cuitry of atten­tion. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 8, 223 – 230. https://​doi​.org/​1​0​.​1​0​1​6​/​j​.​t​i​c​s​.​2​0​0​4​.​0​3​.​004
6 Schweizer, K., Moosbrugger, H., & Goldhammer, F. (2005). The struc­ture of the rela­tion­ship between atten­tion and intel­li­gence. Intelligence, 33(6), 589 – 611. https://​doi​.org/​1​0​.​1​0​1​6​/​j​.​i​n​t​e​l​l​.​2​0​0​5​.​0​7​.​001
Jerry Silfwer
Jerry Silfwer
Jerry Silfwer, alias Doctor Spin, is an awarded senior adviser specialising in public relations and digital strategy. Currently CEO at Spin Factory and KIX Communication Index. Before that, he worked at Kaufmann, Whispr Group, Springtime PR, and Spotlight PR. Based in Stockholm, Sweden.

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