Home > Attention > It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s a Car… and It’s After Me

It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s a Car… and It’s After Me

Let’s say you’re in the market for a new car. You’ve visited dealerships, test driven many cars, and even asked your friends for their recommendations. One of your friends mentions a new car that has received


great reviews, so you Google the car to see what it’s all about. Suddenly, this car starts to show up everywhere. It is parked along the streets by your office. You find it throughout the parking lot of the grocery store and every car commercial seems to be about it. Don’t worry. You are not going crazy. The car is not following you. You are simply falling victim to the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon, or the frequency illusion. This illusion happens all the time and is characterized by paying attention to a new thing and it subsequently seeming to be everywhere. Arnold Zwicky coined this phenomenon in 2006 and explained that it happens due to two psychological processes: selective attention and confirmation bias.


Selective attention is the idea that we notice important things and tend to ignore the rest. Attention is a limited resource, so we must choose how we allocate it (McBride & Cutting, 2015). We could not possibly notice everything that is happening around us, so in order to process information efficiently, recent, relevant, and important information is given the bulk of the resources (Triesman, 1964). Doing this prevents us from having insignificant things fill up our memory. Think about when you are driving and you turn down the radio so you can find a street sign. It may not logically make sense that turning down the music would help you focus. However, it has been found that reducing the number of distractions increases the amount of attentional resources you can divert back to the task of driving (Strayer & Turrill, 2015; for more on their study click here). By ignoring the unimportant information (i.e. the music), you can notice more important things, like pedestrians.

Confirmation bias, on the other hand, occurs when we look for things that support our own hypotheses while disregarding any evidence to the contrary (Zwicky, 2006). This bias occurs quite often during election season when people tend to ignore or downplay any information that goes against their beliefs or candidate (Wang, Moery, & Srivastava, 2014). In fact, it is not just that people choose to ignore counterevidence, it seems that people tend to notice and better recall supportive evidence (Nemeth & Rogers, 1996). When we see or hear information that aligns with our beliefs, we tend to think it is more valid and will remember it better in the future. Unfortunately, confirmation bias can have negative consequences in decision-making. If people are choosing, let’s say a candidate for office, based only on supportive evidence they may be ignoring critical information that may have lead them to reconsider.


            So how do these two processes help explain the frequency illusion? Let’s return to the car example for a moment. Selective attention begins the process when you pay attention to relevant and important things, like the car your friend mentioned. Afterwards, you subconsciously keep an eye out for it, leading you to notice it more. Confirmation bias then kicks in to reassure you that each time you see the car, is proof that it’s everywhere (psmag.com). It is not that the car has actually multiplied in number, but that your brain is noticing it more and then reinforcing each instance in memory. Each time it is reinforced you come to believe you are actually seeing the car everywhere while ignoring that the majority of the time you don’t.

The frequency illusion is often capitalized on in marketing. Subtly introducing a brand or product over and over can cause the consumer to subconsciously and consistently think about the product (https://www.sarkemedia.com/marketing-power-frequency-illusion). Thinking about the product may lead you to eventually purchase it. In other words, companies like to utilize the frequency illusion as a sort of free branding service. Logos are a great way that companies can cause the illusion to occur on a variety of platforms. Ad space is a hot commodity and for good reason: it allows companies to broadcast their brand to a large audience. Clicking around on a website can lead to ads for that product to appear


on your Instagram, Facebook, or even Email. It is not a mistake. Companies use your search history and what you click on to directly market to you so you buy their product (https://blog.hubspot.com/marketing/psychology-marketers-revealing-principles-human-behavior – sm.0000wnlju221nezgq0510kqedx0g2). Another brilliant way that companies play into the frequency illusion is by using catchy jingles. These jingles get stuck in your head and you may even find yourself randomly humming them. Everyone can reenact the voice of Tony the Tiger when he says “They’re grrrreat!” or McDonalds “I’m Lovin’ it!”. The repeated exposure and consequent association to a brand makes you, the consumer, more likely to purchase the product when faced with the decision at the store.

So the next time your friend says they’ve noticed something cropping up everywhere, you can employ your new cognitive psychology knowledge on the frequency illusion and explain it to them. They are noticing it more due to its relevance and then their brain is reinforcing each instance in memory, making it seem as though it is a frequent occurrence. Hopefully this will reassure them that a word, color, or car is not out to get them.



McBride, D. M., & Cutting, J. C. (2015). Cognitive psychology: Theory, process, and methodology. SAGE Publications.

Nemeth, C., & Rogers, J. (1996). Dissent and the search for information. British Journal of Social Psychology, 35(1), 67-76. doi: 10.1111/j.2044-8309.1996.tb01083.x

Strayer, D. L., Turrill, J., Cooper, J. M., Coleman, J. R., Medeiros-Ward, N., & Biondi, F. (2015). Assessing cognitive distraction in the automobile. Human factors, 57(8), 1300-1324. doi: 10.1177/0018720815575149

Treisman, A. M. (1964). Verbal cues, language, and meaning in selective attention. The American journal of psychology, 77(2), 206-219. doi: 10.2307/1420127

Wang, Z., Morey, A. C., & Srivastava, J. (2014). Motivated selective attention during political ad processing: The dynamic interplay between emotional ad content and candidate evaluation. Communication Research, 41(1), 119-156. doi: 10.1177/0093650212441793

Zwicky, A. M. (2006). Why are we so illuded?. Retrieved April 14, 2017 from http://www-csli. stanford. edu/~ zwicky/LSA07illude.abst.pdf.

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  1. Katie Fenton
    May 3rd, 2017 at 21:33 | #1

    I find this cognitive bias so interesting and the example you gave has actually happened to me! When I got my first car, which was a huge, conspicuous, tank-looking thing, I would have sworn that I’d never seen that kind of car before. However, once I got the car, I started seeing them everywhere!
    I was wondering if priming could be another possible explanation for the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon? This may be similar to the idea of selective attention, that if you see or hear about something once, then when it comes up again, you’re more likely to notice it. Could pattern recognition and the recency effect also play a role? The human brain loves to detect patterns in our environment, which means that we would be more likely to notice something that we have come across before, especially if it was recently encountered and still readily available in our memory.

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