“You know what I haven’t seen in a long while?” I said to my friend.
“Scratch and sniff stickers,” I said. “They were all the rage when I was in a kid. I lusted after them so hard.”
“They totally make those,” my friend said.
“I know,” I said. “And I know I could probably easily order them online, like basically anything else. But I dunno. I guess I just assumed there would be more scratch and sniff stickers floating around in adulthood.”
“I know what you mean,” they replied. “I mentally prepared for quicksand after seeing it in so many cartoons. And not once have I actually had to deal with it.”
We laughed. They pivoted to filling me in on the latest goings on in their love life.
I probably would have forgotten about this conversation altogether if I hadn’t stumbled upon an article later that evening by sheer happenstance that referenced the stickers. And even happend across a bunch of scratch and sniff stickers the very next day, as I was out shopping for supplies for a party I was throwing.
Isn’t it funny how that happens, I thought to myself as I picked up some to buy them. Baader-Meinhof phenomenon strikes again.
Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon or Frequency Illusion
Virtually everyone has encountered Baader-Meinhof phenomenon, which is also known as frequency illusion. If you’ve ever gone, “Well, that’s weird… I literally just heard about this for the first time a few days ago and now it’s everywhere I look.” Or, “Wow, I was only just thinking about this, and here it is. What a wild coincidence.”
It’s entirely common to find that once we notice something for the first time (or for the first time in a while) that all of a sudden it seems to be creeping up everywhere.
Why does this happen? While it hasn’t been pinned down for sure, the consensus is that for starters, it likely stems in part from our propensity towards detecting patterns. Coincidences are inevitable and happen all the time, but we tend to drastically underestimate their likelihood and therefore find more meaning in them than they necessarily warrant.
Arnold Zwicky further attributed two other possible culprits in his work on the subject:
- Selective attention. Our predisposition to only notice things that are directly relevant to us and ignore the rest.
- Confirmation bias. A tendency for people to interpret information in a way that confirms their existing beliefs rather than challenging them.
Both of these mechanisms work together to produce mental conditions where frequency illusion is a very common phenomenon.
What If It Isn’t an Illusion? What If It’s Trending?
Now, this explanation for frequency illusion assumes one very important thing: That the increased frequency is an illusion. That there isn’t actually increased interest in the topic.
But could there be situations where it isn’t? Where it’s actually just showing up more often? Culturally.
You’re damn right there could be.
If an idea or concept is experiencing increased popularity, then it’s entirely possible that you were swept up in that phenomenon (possibly without even realizing it), and what you’re going on to witness is the natural evolution of that trend, as it reaches others, who talk about it and spread that information farther and wider.
Some “viral rolls” are quite short and die off in a matter of hours or days. Others can roll and reroll for months or even years.
This post is part of an ongoing Poly Land feature called Psyched for the Weekend, in which I geek out with brief takes about some of my favorite psychological studies and concepts. For the entire series, please see this link.