The frequency illusion (also known as the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon) is the phenomenon in which people who just notice something start seeing it everywhere. For instance, a person who just saw a movie about sharks might start seeing the word "shark" everywhere. This is not necessarily because the person really has come across more instances of the word "shark"; rather, before seeing the movie, they usually simply passed the word over and quickly forgot it, while later, after having seen the movie, the word started sticking in their memory.
At work, attentional bias creates an optical illusion that can lead to poor judgment, limiting our pool of available data for decision-making in the same way that availability bias, confirmation bias or frequency illusion can. We notice more Tesla cars on the road after a friend points them out – when we are primed to notice them. You probably think your neighborhood is less safe after you join an email list devoted to reporting crime incidents. Someone with attentional bias-fueled anxiety might take that a step further and have trouble reading any other emails after signing up for the crime list. A manager wired the same way might conclude that all workers steal after catching a single incident of an employee pocketing a $20 at the end of the night – ignoring hundreds of other days when dozens of employees acted honestly. It’s easy to see how dark that workplace could quickly become.
There is a known link between the Frequency Illusion and delusion, or people with anxiety and schizoprenia. The phenomenon may lead to the confirmation of delusions, and negative thoughts that the patient believes are more than mere suspicions. This happens because the Frequency Illusion confirms doubts and leads a person to think they are truths.
The name "Baader-Meinhof phenomenon" was coined in 1994 by Terry Mullen in a letter to the St. Paul Pioneer Press. The letter describes how, after mentioning the name of the German terrorist group Baader-Meinhof once, he kept noticing it. This led to other readers sharing their own experiences of the phenomenon, leading it to gain recognition. It was not until 2005, when Stanford linguistics professor Arnold Zwicky wrote about this effect on his blog, that the name "frequency illusion" was coined.
Several possible causes behind frequency illusion have been put forth. However, the consensus seems to be that the main processes behind this illusion are other cognitive biases and attention-related effects, that interact with frequency illusion. Zwicky considered this illusion a result of two psychological processes, selective attention and confirmation bias.
Selective attention edit
The main cause behind frequency illusion, and other related illusions and biases, seems to be selective attention. Selective attention refers to the process of selecting and focusing on selective objects while ignoring distractions. This means that people have the unconscious cognitive ability to filter for what they are focusing on.
Selective attention is always at play whenever frequency illusion occurs. Since selective attention focuses on information what they are searching for, their experience of frequency illusion will also focus on the same stimuli. The process of frequency illusion is inseparable from selective attention, due to the cause-and-effect relationship between the two, so the "frequent" object, phrase, or idea has to be selective.
This means that a particularly triggering or emotive stimulus could catch someone's attention, possibly more than a mundane task they are preoccupied with.
Confirmation bias edit
Confirmation bias is a cognitive bias that always interacts with frequency illusion. This bias refers to the tendency of seeking evidence that confirms one's beliefs or hypotheses, while sometimes overlooking evidence to the contrary. Confirmation bias takes effect in the latter stages of selective attention, when the individual has already started noticing the specific stimulus. By focusing on this specific stimulus, the individual notices it more, therefore confirming their suspicions of it occurring more frequently, even though in reality the frequency has not changed. So, confirmation bias occurs when the individual affected by frequency illusion starts looking for reassurance of this increased frequency, believing their theories to be confirmed as they focus only on the supporting evidence.
Recency illusion edit
Recency illusion is another selective attention effect that tends to accompany frequency illusion. This illusion occurs when an individual notices something recently, leading them to be convinced that it originated recently as well. This phenomenon amplifies frequency illusion since it leads the individual to become more aware of recent stimuli and increases the chances of them focusing on it in the near future. Similar to frequency illusion, recency illusion is also a result of selective attention, and can be overcome by fact-checking.
Split-category effect edit
Although more relevant to frequency estimations, though still a possible cause behind frequency illusion, split-category effect refers to the phenomenon when events are split into smaller subcategories, they can increase the predicted frequency of occurrence. An example of this is asking an individual to predict the number of dogs in a country or asking them to estimate the number of Beagles, Labradors, Poodles, and French Bulldogs. Based on this effect, the sum of the latter would be larger than the former. Split-category effect could be causing frequency illusion in people – after subcategorizing an object, phrase, or idea, they might be likelier to notice these subcategories, leading them to believe the main category's frequency of occurrence has increased.
Real-world examples edit
Frequency illusion is common in the linguistic field. Zwicky, who coined the term frequency illusion, is a linguist himself. He gave the example of how linguists "working on innovative uses of 'all,' especially the quotative use," believed their friends used the quotative "all" in conversation frequently. However, when the linguists actually transcribed these conversations, the number of times they used the quotative "all" was found to be significantly lower compared to their expectations. This is most relevant when commentating on modern linguistic trends such as young people using specific phrases. When the phrases' actual frequency of use in the past is examined, however, it is revealed that they are much more frequent throughout history than initially predicted.
In the field of medicine, frequency illusion could help doctors, radiologists, and medical professionals detect diseases. Rare diseases or conditions can often get overlooked by those in the medical field due to an unfamiliarity with the condition. Medical researchers suggest that based on frequency illusion, medical professionals, especially those in training, could be primed to notice rarer patterns and lesions, which would lead them to detect rare diseases and conditions with higher accuracy.
Frequency illusion is utilized by the marketing industry to make this cognitive bias work in their favour. Generally, this is achieved by introducing a product through ads and familiarizing the consumers with it. As a result of frequency illusion, once the consumer notices the product, they start paying more attention to it. Frequently noticing this product on social media, in conversations, and in real life, leads them to believe that the product is more popular – or in frequent use – than it actually is. Either due to a desire to conform or simply to own the product, the consumer eventually makes the purchase. This phenomenon is a marketing trick that increases the likelihood of the consumer buying the product.
See also edit
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