The Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon


The other day I wrote a post about a phrase I had never heard of before, “it’s like dancing about architecture.

And now just today I saw an ad in the Philadelphia Inquirer for a performance at the Kimmel Center called, “Architecture in Motion“. Here’s a brief description of the show from the Kimmel Center web site:

Architecture in Motion is comprised of two individual works, Fluid Infinities and Cubicle. Fluid Infinities is set on an abstract dome structure sitting on a reflection of itself. The performers explore metaphors of infinite space, continuous movement, and our voyage into the unknown future.  Set in an abstract corporate America, Cubicle explores the human condition under cramped control and a monotonous reality, exposing an underlying counterbalance between freedom and anarchy in the workplace. Anonymity and confinement set the pace in this corporate sea of grey as we witness a multitude of shifting landscapes as abstract representations of a familiar work environment. 

But it’s not the play that I wanted to write about it; it’s that phenomenon we’ve all experienced when we come across a new word for the first time, and then soon after we see it again. While I know the phrases aren’t identical – “dancing about architecture” and “architecture in motion” – they were certainly close enough to capture my attention.

As it turns out there is actually a name for such an experience. Anytime you’ve had the thought, “That’s so weird, I just heard about that the other day”, you are encountering the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon.

There is an explanation for such an experience, and it has to do with pattern recognition.  Given how many words we are exposed to on any given day, it should not be surprising that we occasionally run across the same word within a relatively short time period. When it does happen, our brain is stimulated because it makes up the beginnings of a sequence, while ignoring all the words that aren’t repeated and thus do not conform to any pattern.

The Baader-Meinhof phenomenon is also amplified by the recency effect, a cognitive bias that inflates the importance of recent stimuli or observations. This increases the chances of being more aware of a new word when we encounter it again in the near future.

It should be pointed out that the more scientifically accepted name nowadays for the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon is “frequency illusion.”

It should also be pointed out that for the next few days I will be on the look out for the phrase “Baader-Meinhof”;  I’ll let you know if I come across it.


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Jim Borden

Accounting Prof. at Villanova; happily married for 30+ years; father of 3 outstanding young men; vegan; interests: fitness, creativity, education, blogging, social media.

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