Upon moving into our dorm in Sproul Hall, my pun loving roommate and I hung up a picture of Dylan and Cole Sprouse as an homage to the close proximity of the names. However, ever since we did that, we are seeing the twins all over the place: in articles, on the internet, and even around campus. I thought I was going crazy, but I came upon an important question to ask. Am I really seeing them more, or am I just noticing them more?
It turns out that what I’m experiencing is referred to as the frequency illusion, or the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon. The phenomenon is when you notice, experience, or learn about something and it begins to come up in a number of different places. The phrase was coined in 1994 by The St. Paul Minnesota Pioneer Press when a commentator working there heard the name of the left-wing German terrorist group twice in 24 hours. In 2009, Stanford Professor Arnold Zwicky refined the phenomenon to become the Frequency Illusion.
There are two psychological processes that take place when someone gets swept up in the illusion: selective attention and confirmation bias. Selective attention occurs when you hear a term and your brain subconsciously keeps an eye out for it. Therefore, when you come across something you’ve seen or heard recently, you are prone to notice it more than you would have before. Once you begin to see more reoccurrence, the confirmation bias begins to kick in. The confirmation bias is a type of skeptical thinking in which one tends to favor information that supports their pre-existing hypotheses and opinions.
Once your selective attention triggers, the confirmation bias leads you to believe that you have seen the corresponding term more often than usual, when in reality it’s just supporting your original hypothesis and belief that it is in fact “everywhere” you look. It turns out that I am not actually seeing the Sprouse twins more than usual, my selective attention is just noticing every mention and appearance of them, and my confirmation bias is leading me to think that it is more than a coincidence.