After discovering a new word, noticing a new type of drink, or discovering a new medical condition, you may feel like you encounter these things more often than before. This is called the frequency illusion. The frequency illusion is related to memory. Now that you know something, it seems to pop up more often.
In fact, your new favorite song may have been around forever. But because it’s on your mind, you might start noticing it everywhere and, in turn, think it’s somehow become more popular.
Experts also call this concept the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon or the blue car syndrome. The name “Baader-Meinhof” comes from a militant group in West Germany. After a person read about them in the newspaper, they started seeing the terrorist organization again and again, years after it had been a popular news topic.
Similarly, blue car syndrome gets its name from a common situation: when you see a certain car once, you’re more likely to notice that same car again.
Why does the frequency illusion occur?
This phenomenon is very common. It probably affects everyone at some point in their life. Simply put, the frequency illusion occurs because you pay more attention to things that have recently become important to you.
There are two parts to the frequency illusion. First you will believe that something has started to appear more often. Then you’ll convince yourself that the word, concept, or something else didn’t show up as much as it does now, which is called confirmation bias. The frequency hasn’t actually increased, but your brain has convinced you of it.
Although there aren’t many studies on the frequency illusion, the concept is very similar to something called “working memory-based attention capture”. This explains how your attention is guided. When you hold a certain idea in your mind, your attention naturally goes to that thing – without you even realizing it.
The frequency illusion works with your voluntary and involuntary attention. Voluntary attention helps you select and focus on important information for your current task. Involuntary attention occurs when something else distracts your attention from that task.
It’s related to how we’ve evolved. Our mind must react to the things around us to be safe. But we also have to settle some things if we want to accomplish a task effectively. Attention is important for learning and memory. If you don’t pay attention to something, you won’t remember it. So if you’ve just learned something new for the first time, chances are you’re starting to see it more simply because you’re now aware of it.
How can the frequency illusion affect you?
For most people, the frequency illusion will cause no major effects. It’s just an interesting phenomenon. But for others, the frequency illusion can lead to serious consequences.
For example, if you work in the field of criminology, your attention may be focused on a specific suspect. Your mind will then be more inclined to pay attention to this person when new information comes out. It might help the case and lead a detective to the right suspect. But it can also be harmful. If a detective’s mind is focused on one person, he may miss other key evidence.
Likewise, if you work in the medical field, you may have recently discovered a new disease. Because you’re focusing on this disease, you might be more likely to diagnose more people based on their symptoms. The frequency illusion in this case could be helpful as you are more aware of this new condition. But it could also cause you to overlook other similar conditions and misdiagnose someone.
In other cases, if you suffer from certain psychological disorders, the frequency illusion can aggravate your condition. If you have schizophrenia, the frequency illusion confirmation bias may cause you to confirm your own suspicions. If you focus on a specific delusion you have of schizophrenia, the frequency illusion can convince you that something is real when it isn’t.
Overall, this phenomenon shows you how much information your brain is actually taking in at any given time. Most of the time you are not even aware of it. This concept explains why we notice some things more than others once our attention is fixed on something.