Ever notice how when you buy a car you suddenly see the same model everywhere? Or say, you learn the meaning of a new word and just like that, everyone is saying it? No you’re not imagining it; there’s actually a term for that—Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon.
Originally, this concept was called frequency illusion—a term coined by Stanford linguistics professor Arnold Zwicky—but this specific double-named mouthful came about more recently when, according to this article from Pacific Standard, an online commenter heard the name of the ultra-left-wing German terrorist group twice in a 24-hour period and named the experience after them.
Whatever you call it, it only makes sense, says Sally Augustin, Ph. D., an environmental/design psychologist and principal at Design With Science I talked to about the phenomenon. Since we find the familiar comforting, we’re very attentive to it. “Once you paint your walls a sort of blue, it’s natural that you then see it other places,” she says, not only because we “want that tie to the familiar but it gives you the feeling that you made the right choice.”
(Case in point: I recently painted a room a beautiful deep, inky blue and then learned interior designer Bethany Adams had used the exact color in her gorgeous family room. Of course, I also have to wonder if my choice happened subconsciously when I featured her room—though I didn’t know the name of the paint—in this article! Regardless, now I see the color everywhere. It’s Benjamin Moore Gentleman’s Gray, by the way, in case you’re interested.)
But it’s not just psychology at play here, and a brain that seeks positive reaction. When I settled on blue for my dressing room and started hunting for the perfect shade on Pinterest, guess what Pinterest started feeding up every time I opened the app? Yep, the algorithms gave me exactly what I was already looking for. Over and over. Soon I was convinced that that shade of blue was the hottest thing going because it was suddenly everywhere (or at least on my feed, which made me think it was apparently everywhere).
It becomes a whole cycle of rewards at that point. “If you’re looking around trying to decide what to do and [an] image resonates for you because [it] aligns with your personality or your culture, then it will be providing you a little positive jolt [every time you see it],” says Augustin.
One of the components of that jolt, she explains, is the feeling of positive expectation, aka hope, that you can create a space like what you’re seeing (that is, if we’re talking specifically about how frequency illusion applies to things like decorating). And since that feeling is a desirable state, your mind wants to recreate that positive experience whenever possible. Even when you see just one component, she goes on, say a couch similar to one in a room you liked, you still get a little charge because it reminds you of the overall picture. And our minds absolutely crave that feeling so scroll, scroll, scroll our busy thumbs go—pin, like, pin, like—just saturating our brains with those images and positive feelings.
The thing is, then we’re only seeing what we want to see, to the exclusion of anything else.
I wondered if that was a bad thing. Between my own reward-hungry brain driving me more and more often to that shade of blue, and Pinterest and Instagram showing me just how many other people used it in their enviable spaces without that being my intention, was I limiting myself?
Probably. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing, Augustin says.
Say you understand the science of design, and know that a particular sage green is conducive to the relaxing environment that you’re after, she says. “In your soul, know that when you see that sage green it is producing the effect that you want… you’re done. In a way it’s sort of too bad [because] you won’t ever see [another color] which would also produce the same psychological effect, so you might lose out. On the other hand, you’ve achieved your objective even if you haven’t seen [all the possibilities]. Locking in a solution lets you move on. Do you need to know all possible solutions?”
In fact, maybe not. Here’s where this whole situation can be a good thing. When we’re presented with a mind-boggling array of choices (hello, entire Internet) we’re slower to make a choice, Augustin explains, and less likely to be happy with it when we do, because we’re afraid of what we’ve missed out on.
To illustrate, she described an experiment by Sheena Iyengar, author of The Art of Choosing, where people could choose a purchase from six jam flavors or 24. More than six times as many people made a purchase when they chose from the smaller set of jams. Anyone who’s ever been overwhelmed by a voluminous restaurant menu can attest to that feeling.
So if you think about it, Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon could be protecting us from yet another peril of life in 2018: FOMO.