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The Baader Meinhof Phenomenon – Is the universe trying to tell me something?

Updated on 12th December, 2022

Definition of The Baader Meinhof Phenomenon

Have you ever heard a song, found out its name, and then noticed that the song seems to be playing wherever you go? Or perhaps you have found out about a niche fact, and then that knowledge keeps coming in helpful now that you know about it? It is as if now that you know about these things, the universe is putting you in situations where they keep cropping up, almost like they're following you around.

The Baader Meinhof Phenomenon is a cognitive bias wherein, upon noticing or learning about something, an individual finds that it frequently emerges in the ensuing days, months, or years. This phenomenon has been used by many as evidence of simulation theory, parallel universes, and even divine intervention. However, research has shown that it is nothing more than instinctual pattern recognition compounded by man's instinctual subjective interpretation of reality.

Is the universe doing this?
Is the universe doing this?

A person's increased awareness of something might lead to them believing that the frequency of them experiencing something they've recently become aware of has increased when they are just more aware of it than they were before knowing about it. To explain this phenomenon in simple terms, once the Baader Meinhof Phenomenon starts, your brain will develop a strong preference for the new information you learned.

It will think: "Hey, that's some fantastic information right there! I'm going to pay extra attention to my surroundings in case it pops up again." Basically, it is not as if the newly learned information is genuinely being presented to you in a seemingly random way, but rather that you have developed selective attention towards it.

What is the Baader Meinhof Phenomenon?

Being a cognitive bias, the Baader Meinhof Phenomenon is one of many flawed systematic thought processes that cloud the objectivity of our analysis of situations and trends. Essentially, people are prone to making conclusions through a lens warped by their personal experiences and prejudice. Confirmation bias is a more commonly known example of cognitive bias. This is the tendency of people to seek out information that validates and confirms the beliefs they think are correct and true.

Am I sure I saw what I saw?
Am I sure I saw what I saw?

Baader Meinhof is different because it does not involve actively seeking the factor; it just occurs and gets noticed over time. The bias comes from the fact that they interpret this increased awareness of the happenings as evidence that it is becoming a common factor in their lives. Cognitive biases such as these are incredibly difficult to overcome. Almost all scientific studies must implement a system of checks to control the phenomena with varying degrees of success. Science, after all, relies on objective evidence to inform us about various phenomena and provide insight into the world around us, ideally with informed interpretation.

Reality differs from person to person
Reality differs from person to person

Some scientists say it is impossible to remove the subjectivity that comes with cognitive bias, and therefore, it is impossible for us to truly understand and comprehend reality with any “truth” (if an objective truth even exists). In the words of Philip K. Dick:

"Maybe each human being lives in a unique world, a private world different from those inhabited and experienced by all other humans. . . If reality differs from person to person, can we speak of reality singular, or shouldn't we really be talking about plural realities? What about the world of a schizophrenic? Maybe it's as real as our world. Maybe we cannot say that we are in touch with reality, and he is not…"

It is virtually impossible to take a scientific approach to the Baader Meinhof Phenomenon in day-to-day life. No one can record everything they find out and observe the frequency of its mention afterward. However, it may well be the case that some things do emerge more frequently after you find out about them. It is the nature of modern virality and trends for things to peak and trough in popularity. It cannot be discounted that pure chance might mean something keeps happening in your life where before it didn't. The Baader Meinhof Phenomenon is harmless for most people; more of a fun quirk than anything we should be cautious of.

However, in people with mental conditions such as paranoid schizophrenia, or those prone to be highly suggestable, manipulating the Baader Meinhof Phenomenon on people's minds and others can lead to negative consequences. A person suffering from schizophrenia might amplify the importance of these recurrences and apply meaning to them illogically, perhaps leading to suspicions that they are being controlled or spoken to by an outside voice or a higher power. Indeed, Christopher Hitchens, a psychologist, stated that Baader Meinhof is a form of mild psychosis – so closely did he link the illogical attitudes towards pattern recognition. Although this attitude is not commonly held, it is easy to understand why and how the two were linked and how someone suffering from psychotic tendencies could latch onto instances of Baader Meinhof as something of significance to them.

History of the Baader Meinhof Phenomenon

The Baader Meinhof group was a far-left militant organization founded in West Germany in the 1970s. In 1994, a journalist called Terry Mullen wrote a newspaper column about how he had recently discovered the group and since then had the group mentioned to him on multiple occasions.

In response to the column, many readers wrote their own letters detailing similar experiences. As a result of this occurrence, the phenomenon was named the Baader Meinhof Phenomenon. A serious study of the effect was undertaken in 2004, when Arnold Zwicky, a psychologist, posed that the effect was a fusion of two separate cognitive biases.

He believed that the Baader Meinhof Phenomenon consisted firstly of selective attention bias, which is when individuals notice things that they feel are relevant to them. He also thought that the second factor was confirmation bias, an element previously discussed. He argued that people noticed these events and placed higher importance on them. Following this, he used this increased awareness to confirm, in their minds, that they were happening more frequently.

What we see is through our own lens
What we see is through our own lens

Case Examples of the Baader Meinhof Phenomenon

Case 1:
On Thanksgiving Day in 1950, Coca-Cola began advertising its product on television. What would follow over the following decades was the most significant and aggressive advertising strategy ever seen. Coca-Cola proceeded to pump an enormous proportion of its revenues into advertising, producing some genuinely iconic adverts. This year, they spent $4 billion on adverts alone, a sum larger than many countries' economies. This, however, has certainly worked out for them. Coca-Cola remains the eminent soft drink globally, with Nestlé's profits dwarfing rival Pepsi.

The unexpected benefit to Coke's brand recognition
The unexpected benefit to Coke's brand recognition

But where does Baader Meinhof come into this? Without knowing it, Coca-Cola had tapped into the phenomenon. Research has shown that Baader Meinhof Phenomenon plays a massive role in shopping tendencies, with recognition being a major reason we think we want something. Simply put, if you have recently observed a Coca-Cola advert, you will notice it more in your surroundings. You might notice a passer-by drinking it or start to notice it whenever you enter a shop. This recognition can be all it takes to tip the balance of a consumer's choice, resulting in them opting for Coke over any other soft drink.

Case 2:
A recent example of the Baader Meinhof Phenomenon playing a significant role is the rise of crypto. From the end of 2018, search results about Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies skyrocketed as people started to hear more frequently about people making fortunes with little effort. However, people earning vast amounts of money from the rising value of cryptocurrencies has been happening since 2010.

In fact, the fortunes people made during the early days of Bitcoin are far greater than most being made today – only now do people know about it. This sort of behavior is not limited to crypto; it's an enormous factor in the stock market. Virality and recognition are one of the main pillars of stock price change, and it's something that companies are increasingly harnessing to increase the value of their stock.

Case 3:
On 19th September 2012, a Conservative Member of Parliament named Andrew Mitchell was caught on camera calling some policemen “plebs” after they had refused to let him through a gate. The event resulted in a huge national scandal in the United Kingdom, a scandal that ultimately led to the politician's resignation from office. “Pleb” is short for “plebian,” a word used for the Roman Empire's working classes. It has recently been used as a patronizing slur to connote someone lesser than the individual using it. This word has mostly died out in the English lexicon; it has barely been used by the public for years. However, following this scandal, search results of the word “pleb” grew exponentially, as the word began to again become a popular insult for someone who a person considers beneath them. The popularity caused by the Mitchell scandal resulted in people researching it.

This led to increased usage, which meant more people began to notice its prevalence, and then use it themselves, expounding the virality of this archaic insult. Furthermore, examples of the word's usage began to be noticed by members of the British public, who may have not been previously aware of its connotations. Users of the word were noticed and called out in all avenues, from pop-culture to everyday life. The word is now noticed much more frequently and warrants a severe response from employers and the public.

Crypto is nothing new
Crypto is nothing new

Alike her mother, Stein also had a criminal background and was released on parole in 2020 from a 6 years sentence of drug possession. Hence, because of her mother’s absence, Mutten was required to stay with Stein, her legal guardian. However, he was also reported to display extremely abusive behaviors towards her. Following her disappearance, police conducted an exhaustive search for an entire week but found nothing. It was only when the neighbors told the police that they saw a car leaving Stein’s property which led investigators to find Mutten’s body hidden in a barrel near a neighboring river.

A Beautiful Quote

“The value of experience is not in seeing much, but in seeing wisely.”

- William Osler

Questions and Answers

What are the other names for the Baader Meinhof Phenomenon?

The phenomenon was named after the Baader Meinhof Gang from West Germany in the 1970s. The other names for this phenomenon are the Baader Meinhof Effect, the Frequency Illusion, and the Baader Meinhof Syndrome (used rarely).

How can the Baader Meinhof Phenomenon affect you?

The Frequency Illusion might be at play behind the scenes in your work and life. Say, for example, you are a medical professional and recently learned about a new virus that doctors have repeatedly mentioned in the past few days. You will likely focus on this new information while treating and diagnosing patients with similar symptoms. Unfortunately, this could lead to a misdiagnosis and further unnecessary medical tests.

Could the Baader Meinhof Phenomenon and anxiety be linked?

There is a known link between the Frequency Illusion and anxiety, or people with delusions. 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.

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