Blue cars everywhere – The Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon

Have you ever learned a new word or concept, only to start noticing it everywhere? This is called the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon, and it is not just exclusive to learning a new language.

This post is also available in Dutch.

Have you ever learned a new word or concept, only to start noticing it everywhere? Suddenly, it’s in articles, conversations, advertisements, and even on the radio. It feels like the universe is conspiring to bring it to your attention. As a non-native speaker of Dutch living in the Netherlands, this happens to me all the time. This is called the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon, and it is not just exclusive to learning a new language.

From language learning to parking lots – frequency illusions are everywhere

Another name for the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon is “frequency illusion”, which aptly describes it: a cognitive bias in which you notice something more frequently after becoming aware of it. The name Baader-Meinhof phenomenon was coined by Terry Mullen who mentioned the name of the terrorist group Baader–Meinhof once and after that, kept noticing it everywhere.

A particular example of a frequency illusion is the blue car syndrome, which occurs when somebody buys a brightly colored car to stand out, only to feel like they are surrounded by cars in that color. When someone consciously focuses on the color, our brains actively seek out similar stimuli in our surroundings. This heightened awareness can create the illusion that there are more blue cars than ever around you. In reality, our perception has simply been sharpened to notice them.

The power of attention, priming, and confirmation bias

When we experience this phenomenon, our brains are predisposed to focus on instances that align with our recent encounters. A key contribution to this is selective attention, our brain’s spotlight that allows us to filter information. If we are more aware of a certain concept, we likely become aware of it in the environment. Thisphenomenon is also linked to priming, a psychological phenomenon where exposure to one stimulus influences our response to a subsequent stimulus and can enhance our sensitivity to related things. Furthermore, confirmation bias also plays a significant role. This bias refers to our tendency to seek out information that supports our existing beliefs or expectations while ignoring or dismissing contradictory evidence. So in the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon, by being primed with blue cars through your own car, you selectively attend more to them and by believing that you suddenly see so many blue cars, your confirmation bias leads you to focus on the blue cars while ignoring (much more frequent) other colors, creating a feedback loop that reinforces itself.

The Brain’s Pattern Recognition Superpower

Selective attention and perceptual biases fuel the brain’s remarkable ability to recognize patterns. Our brains are constantly processing information from the world around us, trying to make meaningful associations. This process, known as pattern recognition, helps us make sense of our environment and navigate through daily life. Our brains are like little statisticians who crave regular patterns and try to find structure in the information around us which means that we are more sensitive to detecting a perceived surge in the frequency of encountering blue cars once our attention is tuned to it.

So next time you find yourself encountering the same word, idea, or object repeatedly, take a moment to appreciate how our brains are extraordinarily good at finding patterns but also remind yourself of how easily our perception is influenced by biases. Following the logic of frequency illusions, you will notice them more often now that you are aware of them!


Author: Helena Olraun

Buddy: Elena Markantonakis

Editor: Francesca Alba

Translation: Maartje Koot

Editor translation: Maartje Koot

Featured image by Kelly via

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