Home > Attention, Cognitive Bias > That Band is Really Cool, But I Swear It’s Everywhere

That Band is Really Cool, But I Swear It’s Everywhere

Have you ever scrolled through Spotify and discovered a band you like?  Have you ever started listening to all its songs and suddenly you start hearing it all the time on the radio and seeing advertisements for its new album or concert? Or maybe you just found out you’re pregnant and see parents with their kids everywhere you go? While it’s easy to think that maybe you just discover bands that magically and suddenly get really big or that maybe more people suddenly have kids these days, you’re actually probably experiencing what is called the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon or frequency illusion.

Kids are everywhere! Or so you think.

The frequency illusion occurs when a person experiences something, like finding a song he or she likes on Spotify or becoming pregnant, and then afterwards believes that the experience or phenomenon happens all the time. So why does this occur? Well, there are two cognitive processes that are involved in creating the frequency illusion: selective attention and confirmation bias (Zwicky, 2006). 

Selective attention is the idea that we mostly choose what we want to pay attention to once we filter out a lot of the other environmental information that is irrelevant or unnecessary. It’s impossible for us to pay attention to every single thing in our environment, which basically means that attention has a limited capacity, so we have to focus on and allocate attentional resources to what we think is important in our environment (McBride & Cutting, 2015). While this means we won’t be overwhelmed by environmental information, which is a good thing, it also means that attention spent on one task limits attention for and impedes performance in another task (Sanbonmatsu et al., 2016). In fact, we are all selectively attending to information, even when we don’t think we are. This is a problem because it can lead us to receiving a lot of information about one thing because we decided to pay attention to that one thing as opposed to something else (Graf & Aday, 2008)!

Now, confirmation bias is a little bit different from plain old selective attention.  Instead of just selectively attending to any information in the environment that seems important or relevant, the confirmation bias occurs when individuals selectively attend to information that confirms their beliefs while simultaneously ignoring information that could challenge or provide evidence against those beliefs.

Confirmation Bias at it’s finest!

This means that we attend to things selectively based on our priorities (Rajsic et al., 2015). When we believe that we see or hear something over and over, we prioritize paying attention to that thing as opposed to something else in order to confirm the belief that we see or hear that particular thing everywhere. This can happen when something changes our lives, like getting pregnant, and afterwards we see that tons of people have kids everywhere we go. Kids and pregnancy are now relevant to us and because we have created the belief that kids are everywhere; We selectively look for families with kids instead of families without kids, making it seem as if there are more families with kids than there actually are. The danger with confirmation bias is that avoiding or ignoring information that counters our beliefs can warp our opinions to the extreme about things (Charness & Dave, 2017). This warping of opinions affects all sorts of people like teachers when grading students work, researchers regarding the data that supports their hypothesis, and even doctors and incorrect diagnoses (Charness & Dave, 2017). The nature of confirmation bias is that it’s partially manipulated by top-down processing. Top down processing involves expectations, prior knowledge, and assumptions. Since top down processing is fundamental to a person’s opinions, perceptions and beliefs, it also plays a significant part in confirmation bias.

Spotify is a place where one can discover and listen to music.

So now that we’ve established what the two cognitive processes involved are, let’s talk about how these two functions work to create the frequency illusion. Think back to the music example. So, you’ve just found a new song on Spotify, and due to selective attention, you decide to listen and pay attention to the song whenever you have free time because you like it and it’s now relevant to you. As soon as you found it on Spotify and listened to it, you made the song important because you liked it and therefore you begin to listen for the song whenever you hear music without realizing it, making it stand out when you do happen to hear it at the gym or on the radio. The more you hear the song, the more confirmation bias comes into play. Your brain then says, “see the song is popular and is playing everywhere, even more than other songs” which reinforces that belief over and over again. Remember that the song isn’t actually suddenly everywhere, and that there’s plenty of times where other songs are playing. However, confirmation bias pushes that opposing information aside because it doesn’t coincide with the created belief that a particular song is suddenly playing everywhere.

Now before you think your brain is tricking you all the time, you should know that there are other factors that emphasize the frequency illusion and benefit from it. During elections, many candidates use all sorts of advertising to push their name to the front of your mind, which can make you think about something or someone a lot. In these cases, you are actually seeing that thing more often than other things.

Websites and search engines look at your history and tailor advertisements towards your preferences.

Candidates can campaign through advertisements and signs hoping that it makes you consider voting for them because you see it more often. On top of that, if you read more articles about one political party, many websites and apps use your search history to bombard you with information related to your searches, causing more information and articles about that political party to show up. This goes for anything, not just for political information. Have you ever bought a pair of shoes online, and then see random advertisements for those exact shoes on completely unrelated websites? Well now you know how it happens! This experience isn’t necessarily the frequency illusion alone; It’s repetitive, direct to consumer advertising that parallels and can sometimes emphasize or combine with the frequency illusion to create the experience.

Although advertising can contribute to information becoming widespread, don’t forget about those cognitive processes that actively encourage and contribute to the belief that something appears often! Now you know that selective attention and confirmation bias are enabling the frequency illusion to occur. Trust me, just because you might be pregnant, might not necessarily mean that suddenly more people have kids!

References

Charness, G., & Dave, C. (2017). Confirmation bias with motivated beliefs. Games and Economic Behavior1041-23. doi:10.1016/j.geb.2017.02.015

Graf, J., & Aday, S. (2008). Selective attention to online political information. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media52(1), 86-100. doi:10.1080/08838150701820874

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

Rajsic, J., Wilson, D. E., & Pratt, J. (2015). Confirmation bias in visual search. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance41(5), 1353-1364.doi:10.1037/xhp0000090

Sanbonmatsu, D.M., Strayer, D.L., Biondi, F. et al. (2016) Cell-phone use diminishes self awareness of impaired driving. Psychonomic Bullitin and Review, 23: 617. doi:10.3758/s13423-015-0922-4

Zwicky, A. M. (2006). Why are we so illuded?. Retrieved May 22, 2018 from http://www-csli.stanford. edu/~ zwicky/LSA07illude.abst.pdf.

  1. aenorc20
    May 10th, 2018 at 17:42 | #1

    Jenny,

    Really great post! I found this to be super interesting because this is something that I have definitely noticed in my own life. I enjoyed that you related it to music, because I have also found myself noticing a song and then thinking it is played everywhere. Also, your discussion about the confirmation bias and selective attention helped me understand the processes contributing to the frequency illusion.

    As I was reading this, I started thinking about how attentional bias contributes to the frequency illusion. Attentional bias is the tendency to pay attention to certain stimuli, while also ignoring other stimuli; this bias impacts what we perceive in the environment as well as decisions we make based off of our perceptions. So, if we selectively attend to a certain song, we will process it better and realize more frequently that it is being played. However, it is interesting because whenever I notice a certain song being played more frequently, my goal was never to hone in on that song and always notice when it was playing. However, due to an attentional bias, I may actually pay attention to that stimuli more and notice that it is being played – even though I may also be ignoring other stimuli in the process.

  2. May 16th, 2018 at 14:46 | #2

    This post was super interesting to me because an incident like this actually happened to me last week! There is a band that I had never heard of and over winter break my brother showed me a few songs by them that he liked. I had never heard any of the songs before but really liked them. I have listened to a couple of those songs many many times since then. A week or so ago I was in the spa and I heard one of the songs come on and I was so shocked! Then, a few days later, I was on Facebook and someone had posted a picture with a caption of the lyrics of one of the other songs by that band. I was so surprised that I had never come across these songs in my life and then suddenly saw references to them in multiple places. Your post is really interesting to read after experiencing this because I realize that I may in fact have heard these songs in other places before, but since I didn’t know them yet, they did not catch my attention and I did not attend to them. Great job with this post!

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