The Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon

I mentioned this effect a while back, when writing about our tendency to find patterns and meaning in randomness. The Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon is when we learn some new information, often a new word, and seem to see it everywhere afterwards. I was thinking about this recently when I wrote about words I don’t know. I knew that I’d start to see some of the words I was reading for the first time, and sure enough, a few weeks ago, I came across the word ithyphallic while reading Foucault’s Pendelum. Given the specificy of its meaning, I hadn’t expected to see it often, though it did make sense in the context of the book.

The term, Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon, is a somewhat unusual one.

You might assume it’s named after the researchers who identified the phenomenon, but if you’re interested in 1970s German politics, you’ll know that Baader Meinhof was a terrorist group, later known as the Red Army Faction. The reason the phenomenon is named after the group is depressingly mundane. In 1995, some people on an online message board were discussing the effect, and began to wonder why it had no name. At this point, someone who’d encountered mentions of the Baader-Meinhof twice in quick succession asserted the right to name the term, condemning us to confusion ever since. It was an odd decision, and I wonder why they didn’t see how it’s not really logical to name the general term after a very specific example of it.

Of course you can use frequency illusion instead, though that term wasn’t actually coined until 2006. It seems bizarre that it took so long to come up with a term for the phenomenon. I think it might be because a lot of people assumed this was something unique to them, and never spoke about it with others, until the internet made it easier for people to share their stories.

Whatever the reasons, be prepared to hear about the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon a lot!

8 thoughts on “The Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon

  1. As soon as I saw the title of your post, memories of living in Germany as a young child during those turbulent times came to mind – how interesting to learn about the phenomenon that now bears the name of the gang that agitated parts of my childhood!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Baader-Meinhof rarely fails me.

    However, one way to increase chances that it does: read Shakespeare, note word X that appears there for the first time, and only there in all his works, go out into the world, see what happens.

    What happens is the “Approximative” Baader-Meinhof: all the words that could possibly be similar to X, will be first interpreted as X, then as whatever they truly are. The poor BMP tries, the poor thing tries bloody hard to fit the glass slipper on every similar shaped foot …


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