#30in30 – When you see it, it will chase you “Catch me if you can.”

The 30 in 30 Briefing Series focuses on a new cognitive bias, fallacy or heuristic in every single publication. Through this Briefing we want to provide you with a rough overview of the cognitive phenomena most likely to occur in the legal profession. Today’s content: Frequency illusion, or also known as Baader-Meinhof phenomenon.

Surprisingly, the name of this bias has nothing to do with the terrorist group it was named after. The coining of this denomination goes back to a public commentator, who witnessed the effects of it based on his experiences of frequencies in news about the Baader-Meinhoff group.

Have you ever experienced that you saw something and immediately afterwards this same thing seemed to pop up everywhere throughout the next days – for example a new car you are looking for or some new jeans you just bought? What seems to be pure coincidence is a cognitive phenomenon called the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon (named after a terrorist group which used to be active in Western Germany). This phenomenon occurs when an element you have just noticed, experienced or been told about suddenly finds its way into your consciousness with a high frequency. But why does it happen? Why does everybody around you seem to drive the same car you just bought?

One part of the explanation is that our brain only processes a small amount of the data and information we receive. This is also known as selective attention, we just pay attention to the things we are looking for. Consequently, we tend to overlook most things that surround us. Once we put our focus on something our brain tends to focus on this newly learned pattern, information or phenomenon. Therefore, we have the feeling that the unfamiliar word we just learned is used in almost every text. But your impressions are unreliable. This effect is further intensified by the Confirmation Bias: Every sighting is another proof of your impression that the new bit of information has gained omnipresence.

Now that we understand that not everybody just bought the new car we are looking for: How can we use this knowledge in everyday life? First this phenomenon shows us the importance of active learning, only if we put focus on the topics we learn our brain can retrieve them. Also, we know that we tend to overestimate the frequency of the information we newly received.

Turning to the implications for the legal field, we still tend to understand law as an objective profession. However, we should be aware of the Frequency Illusion’s impact on our perception of the world. Furthermore, it has to be understood in conjunction with the Confirmation Bias: A combination of both has ample potential to turn out harmful for legal research. Given some information we read in the literature or in a court’s opinion, the Frequency Illusion might keep us from developing different approaches to a legal conflict and thus detrimentally narrow our ‘field of vision’.

Therefore, there exists a propensity to unconsciously favor and focus on theories which are already familiar to ourselves. In combination with a significant workload as well as working during unfavorable hours such as night times, this carries the potential to create the fertile soil upon which errors, such as the overlooking of relevant information in the literature, can flourish.

One can only speculate whether the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon influences the perception of eyewitnesses. But imagine science could prove that eyewitnesses tend to create an overlay of the offender and a criminal character of a recently watched TV show – an interesting thought and moreover an interesting topic to induce further research.


(Picture with courtesy of Pixabay)