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The Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon: Didn't I Just Hear About That?

August 22nd, 2020 by 
PK

The Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon is the phenomenon where something you recently learned suddenly appears 'everywhere'. Also called Frequency Bias (or Illusion), the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon is the seeming appearance of a newly-learned (or paid attention to) concept in unexpected places.

Where Did the Idea of a Frequency Illusion Come From?

The Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon, or Frequency Bias, can be triggered by societal trends or mind tricks.
Similar to déjà vu, brains can trigger the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon

Linguist Arnold Zwicky first put the term Frequency Illusion to paper in 2006, in a delightfully named piece [PDF], Why Are We So Illuded?

Zwicky defined the Frequency Illusion as first 'noticing'... then 'believing' something happens a whole lot.

Further, he posited it as a crossover of two other fundamental biases:

  • Selective Attention - Brains are very good at tuning out non-relevant information, so we suddenly notice and surface related information.
  • Confirmation Bias - Humans love to confirm our own suspicions, and we prioritize information which backs our beliefs.

The concept of the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon, however, predates Zwicky's paper. Interestingly, it grew out of a letter to the St. Paul Pioneer Press by Gigetto on Lincoln.

While we couldn't find the original 1994 column (perhaps a local reader can grab the microfilm?), The Press has made many back-references. Gigetto on Lincoln claimed to have discussed the German Baader-Meinhof Gang with a friend, who then called back a few days later and (surprise, surprise!) reported seeing a segment on the B-M Gang on the news.

From local St. Paul coinage to a more-widely recognized phenomenon, the Baader-Meinhof name stuck.

But What – or Who – was the Baader-Meinhof Group?

The eponymous Baader-Meinhof Gang was a paramilitary group active in Germany starting in 1970. Also known as the Red Army Faction, Andreas Baader, Ulrike Meinhof, Gudrun Ensslin and Horst Mahler founded the group. Growing out of the West German Student Protest Movement, the RAF's activity peaked in 1977 with the events of German Autumn.

B-M is believed responsible for 34 deaths and a large number of injuries and property destruction. They remained at least moderately active past the Berlin Wall's razing, 'officially' dissolving with a faxed letter to Reuters in 1998.

What Could Cause the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon?

You can think about the Frequency Illusion in two ways:

  1. There is a perceived increase in topical interest.
  2. There is an actual increased interest in a topic.

If frequency bias is always an illusory phenomenon then Professor Zwicky's summary holds. Our brain's ability to screen out and pay attention to subjects subconsciously will sometimes trigger the illusion. Additionally, confirmation bias would only heighten the effect for subjects particularly interesting to us.

Frequency bias might sometimes reflect increased interest as well.

If some event, group, or idea is now part of the cultural zeitgeist then you really will see more references to it – and you need to learn about it at some point. Unless you invented a concept or founded a group, at some point you'll discover it... and if it's currently trending, you're sure to see it often.

Of course, there is a third possibility: the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon is an example of collective consciousness and has a supernatural explanation.

We won't cover that possibility - it's too far outside our range of expertise!

The Copernican Method as it Relates to the Frequency Bias

Often, as stated, triggered Baader-Meinhof might sometimes reflect an actual cultural shift or trend. While we can wave our hands around this sort of thing happening, there are some concepts in unrelated fields which start from the same basic principles.

The so-called Copernican Method (a phrase used interchangeably with Bayesian Inference) is a model which, in the absence of grounding assumptions, assumes the observer is "not special" and randomly discovers a phenomenon during the phenomenon's lifetime. Stemming from Copernicus's Mediocrity Principal, cosmologist Richard Gott used the method to accurately predict the lifetime of the Berlin Wall based upon his trip to visit it.

Assuming you are not particularly special, you will probably learn about a trend in the middle of its popularity. That almost guarantees you'll continue to notice it - and the frequency illusion won't be an illusion.

(It's okay, we still think you're special.)

Multiple Inventions and the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon

One theory of discovery in science is the so-called Multiple Invention or Simultaneous Invention theory.

Continually throughout history, major leaps forward in scientific progress have occurred in a relatively short period of time.

Often, this manifests as multiple "inventors" or "discoverers" of the same method or thing... all about the same time. Consider the independent discovery of calculus, or the similarly independent discovery of oxygen.

The multiple inventions theory implies that all the elements for discovery must be available at the right time. With the pieces available, more than one person is able to put them into place.

In science, perhaps that means that an earlier discovery makes a larger later discovery inevitable. For the frequency illusion, maybe some non-obvious event shared event triggers multiple people to talk about the same subject.

The multiple inventions theory has many theorized mechanisms, and gives a non-supernatural explanation of the 'collective consciousness' theory. Non-biological evolutionary theories like memetics and evolutionary epistemology might explain how more than one person can arrive at the same invention or thought. Yes, those viral 'meme' gifs posted on your Facebook wall might work through a similar channel.

It's an interesting mechanism which would partially explain ideas that seem to leap forth suddenly - you should start your research at the Wikipedia article so we don't veer off too far into the weeds here.

How Baader-Meinhof Relates To You

So, yes - the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon or Frequency Bias certainly exists. It also, at least some of the time, has a cultural or societal explanation. Further still, that cultural explanation doesn't require a supernatural explanation.

Let's tie the phenomenon back to a more practical matter as is our wont on this site: your money.

This will happen to you often - you'll discover an asset class or investment opportunity, then continue to hear more. When Baader-Meinhof kicks in and juices your fear of missing out, you should think back to this article... Unless you invented or researched an idea yourself or have another advantage - are you sure you're special?

In any situation without further context, especially when it will affect your wallet, it's best to assume you aren't an early adopter or genre pioneer. Whether that's tulip bulbs or bitcoins, if investment ideas hit the mainstream before you act you're not going to be among the first to profit.

So, proceed with caution - unless you know you have an advantage otherwise. Index funds are always an excellent choice.

Have you experienced the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon? Was your experienced triggered by a societal trend, coincidence, luck, brain-tricks, or a supernatural hive-mind?

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