Priming Yourself For Happiness: The Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon

Priming Yourself For Happiness: The Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon

The Baader-Meinhof or Frequency Illusion is when we learn something new and then subconsciously notice it with higher frequency. When apparently, nothing has changed.

No time? Listen to it instead

Ever heard someone claim that the number 1111 or 1234 follows them around? Yeah, well, I have. It’s a classic case of the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon. There’s an origin story behind the weird name. We’ll dive into that but for now, rest assured. It’s also called recency illusion or frequency illusion. Those are easier to remember now, aren’t they?

The Origin

In 1994, a newspaper reader in Minnesota named Terry Mullen mentioned the Baader-Meinhof gang from West Germany to a friend. The next day the friend came back to Terry with a newspaper article mentioning the gang. The thing was, the gang shouldn’t have been in the news at all.

Terry reached out to the newspaper in a letter, describing a phenomenon where if you learn a new concept, you’ll see it again within 24 hours. Eventually, Arnold Zwicky, a Standford linguist, coined the term Frequency Illusion describing essentially the same thing.

Baader-Meinhof stuck though. It sounded cooler, or maybe, people kept seeing the phrase everywhere.

Why Does It Happen?

There are two parts to it. The first is you noticing that the frequency has increased. It hasn’t grown, but there’s a perception for it. The second part is the confirmation bias. We tend to convince ourselves of things we want to believe. With this, we convince ourselves that the frequency of something happening wasn’t the same earlier.

In other words, we tell ourselves we’re pretty darn convinced that we’re so special, the frequency of the thing increased right after we learned about it.

What About Happiness?

The Frequency Illusion doesn’t just cover things we learn about. It also encompasses things we feel. When things aren’t going our way, we only notice the things that aren’t going our way. This works the other way round too. Even knowing we’re probably just convincing ourselves that the world is out to get us can get us out of a spiral of hopelessness.

It works the other way too. If we start to notice the good around us, it gets built into a habit. With that, we begin to notice it more. Of course, it’s no theory. The idea is of priming. We can prime ourselves to see what can go wrong and continually notice all things that can go wrong. That’s one way to go about it. Then, we can also prime ourselves to see how things might pan out, and then, we’ll often see opportunities as soon as they present themselves.

The Nudge

We often notice new words or ideas more once we intentionally look for them, even though we’re not aware that we are searching for them. That’s called the Frequency Illusion or Baader-Meinhof phenomenon. It doesn’t just end at things we learn, though. We also prime ourselves for what we expect. If we expect things to go wrong, we only see those signs. Of course, we can try to prime ourselves for optimism. If we do that, we begin to notice the good stuff.

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