Baader-Meinhof, and Why You Should Question Your Own Perceptions

It’s happened to you many times. You hear about a red Volkswagen and start thinking about them. Next thing you know, you see them everywhere. You start suspecting that maybe there are suddenly more red Volkswagens in the world than before, and that you somehow psychically summoned them into existence. As I type this, I’m sitting next to a copy of Boy, the engrossing childhood memoir by Roald Dahl, that I pulled off the library shelf at the Bangkok homestay I’m staying at; it caught my eye because I’d just read a news story about his estate bowdlerizing certain insensitive passages in some of his books. Did you know that there’s a somewhat formal name for this kind of coincidence? It’s called the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon — quite possibly the only scientific principle ever to be named after a terrorist group.

Baader-Meinhof (also known as frequency illusion) has been around forever, but its deceptively academic-sounding moniker dates back only to 1994, when a reader wrote a letter to a Minnesota newspaper commenting that he’d only recently heard of the Baader-Meinhof Group, a German radical faction, but after hearing about them for the first time, he suddenly started hearing their name crop up repeatedly. This set off a flurry of letters from other readers reporting they’d had a similar experience themselves. And since there was yet no name for the phenomenon, it was christened Baader-Meinhof.

Whatever you call it, Baader-Meinhof is triggered by an initial encounter or initial notice, which heightens our awareness of the object in question, causing us to notice it in the future when we otherwise might have overlooked it. But we human beings, being reluctant to admit such changes in observation are due to our own faculties, tend to impute them to external factors instead. It isn’t just a perspective-based alignment of surface features on Mars; there must be canals there, by golly.

The frequency illusion is just one example of how our own brains can deceive us if we don’t use them properly. We’ve all had the experience of entertaining a clear, detailed memory of some event, only to learn later that our own account differs sharply from someone else’s and/or from recorded evidence. All of us consistently revise our memories; some people have even been known to manufacture memories altogether.

My recollection of Charlie Chaplin receiving a special Oscar always entailed a vivid image of a frail old man hobbling onstage with the aid of a cane. But when I finally watched the scene again decades later, I saw that the cane, a prop from his signature tramp character, was actually handed to him by a presenter at the podium. He never used it, didn’t have it when entering, and walked just fine. Nor did he look or sound nearly as ancient and frail as I’d recalled.

If our own senses betray us so readily by pure chance, our perceptions certainly can be altered drastically by the deliberate bombardment of certain tropes from the media and the Internet. Grooming. Cancel culture. Wokeness. The constant repetition of such soundbites is intended to instill in the public a credence in the intended narratives, in part by encouraging us to pay more attention to those incidents in which such things seem to occur.

And if you observe the supposed patterns long enough, you might allow a belief about their meaning and relevance to congeal in your head. And thus, you’d almost certainly develop a confirmation bias, which would reinforce further your convictions about the random events. As we’ve mentioned before, confirmation bias isn’t necessarily a bad thing. When applied constructively, it’s a useful time-saving shortcut. But that’s assuming your biases have a solid factual basis, and aren’t based merely on comfort, convenience and ego.

The hawkers of propaganda want you to skip the verification process and go directly to the bias. And they’ll gladly prod you along with cherry-picked anecdotes designed to impress people who don’t venture out of their own yards.

Take one of the perennially most prominent narratives, the supposed “liberal bias” of mainstream media. You will hear this hammered at again and again (by the “liberal media”!) year after year after year. When the public hears this claim, they start noticing specific cases that seem to reinforce it (though they often don’t). And as they notice more and more, they start believing the tenet is true, and nothing can persuade them otherwise. This has worked incredibly well. Polls repeatedly show that more Americans than not believe the “liberal media” lie; a 2017 poll, for instance, found that 64 percent believed the mainstream media favored the Democratic party, compared to 22 percent who believed it favored the Republican Party. But anyone who actually does systematic research on the matter will find that the opposite of “liberal bias” is true — extremely, overwhelmingly so.

The world’s great thinkers have always pondered the problem of how we can know that what we know is real — even Shakespeare had a go at it. How do we know that we don’t just live in a “dream within a dream”? Could we just be hallucinating about all of our experiences?Are we all just living in the Matrix? If so, does it really matter? If the MAGA cult convinces enough people that the 2020 election was “stolen”, then does that simply become the new truth by default?

The philosopher Rene Descartes famously pared down his certainties to one essential: his own existence. He realized that, whatever else he might doubt, he could be assured that, if he could doubt his existence, then he must exist in order to do the doubting. (“I think, therefore I am.”) Upon this unshakeable foundation he then could build other logical conclusions about what is real and what isn’t. (Which didn’t necessarily keep him sailing smoothly; he dedicated a great deal of muddy argument to trying to prove that God exists, without adequately defining his terms.)

We’re not all as thorough and assiduous as Descartes. And we don’t all have as much time on our hands. Fortunately, we don’t need his proclivities or circumstances. We just need to look beyond our noses, and base our convictions on a broad platform of research rather than presumption. Your mind is all too willing to be a practical joker if not a snake oil salesman. And there are all too many people eager to help it along.

By the way, if you’ve never heard of Baader-Meinhof before, it’s a good bet you’ll be crossing paths with it again soon.


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