How To Exploit The Power of The Frequency Illusion

What is the frequency illusion?

Have you ever been shopping for a car, a phone, a watch, or a pair of sunglasses and, once you settle on the model you want, you start seeing it everywhere? There’s a name for that phenomenon. It’s called the frequency illusion.


And no, I’m not talking about seeing internet ads for your new “toy" everywhere. There’s a different name for that. It’s called retargeting, and that happens for a very different reason.

While the frequency illusion is a well-known phenomenon, today I want to show you how you can use this little psychological quirk to counteract one of the biggest challenges for anyone who wants to develop a new habit in our connected world.

The term the frequency illusion was coined by Stanford and Ohio State linguistics professor Arnold Zwicky. The basic idea is that, once you become consciously aware of something, you start to notice it everywhere. The reality is, obviously, that those things were always there; you just never noticed them.

"A rose by any other name..."

You may have heard the frequency illusion referred to as the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon. You might think, like I did, that it’s named after some German researcher or researchers (named Baader-Meinhof or Baader and Meinhof) who “discovered”, or at least studied and named, it. But if you pull up the Wikipedia page on Baader Meinhof, you’ll find that the name actually refers to an extremist, left-wing, West German militant group from the 1970s. The reason that name has been linked to the frequency illusion is an interesting footnote to the story.

In 1994, on a website forum of the St. Paul, Minnesota newspaper the Pioneer Press, the frequency illusion was being discussed. A visitor to the forum on that day had recently experienced the frequency illusion first-hand by hearing about the Baader-Meinhof group and then noticing another reference to it somewhere else the next day. Since the group was relatively unknown to US citizens at the time, hearing about it twice, in two unrelated places within a span of 24 hours made it noteworthy. Consequently, the forum visitor commented on his experience with what is now known as the frequency illusion (which it’s worth noting hadn’t been officially named at that point), and so he gave it a name: The Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon. The term “stuck” on the Pioneer Press forum and, as people who had been exposed to it ventured out to other parts of the internet, it spread like a virus.

We're drowning in bits

The frequency illusion is related to motivation because you can’t be motivated to do something you aren’t aware of. If you never consciously think about something, there’s no way you can actually do anything about it. As I’ve discussed in several other videos, we humans are “bundles of habits”. You spend much more of your life on autopilot than you probably realize.

Complicating matters even more, the internet is increasingly creeping into every corner of our lives, through an ever-growing array of “smart” devices. The proliferation of these addictive devices makes it increasingly difficult for anything not displayed on a screen to cut through the noise and make its way into your attention. That’s because the way you spend your free time is vastly different than it was just 20 years ago. The time you used to spend looking around and noticing things in your environment, talking to other people, and just thinking in general, is now largely filled with cat videos and Facebook posts about your friends’ kids. Your brain is bathed in a steady stream of content, which it loves because it’s at least moderately pleasurable and requires virtually no effort.

The frequency illusion illustrates how your subconscious mind can recognize much more of what’s in your environment than your conscious mind perceives. Depending on which study you read, the amount of incoming information that your conscious mind can process is somewhere in the range of 60 bits per second. Your subconscious mind, on the other hand, can absorb and process somewhere around 10 million bits per second. I won’t get into details of what constitutes a “bit” in this context, because it’s not relevant to this discussion. The point is simply that your subconscious mind has vastly more capacity to notice things in your environment than your conscious mind does.

Putting the frequency illusion to work for you

So, how can you counteract this monopolization of your conscious awareness? You can use the frequency illusion to your advantage to increase your motivation by “priming” your brain to notice the kinds of things that are important to you and that you want to focus on. The key is to train your subconscious mind what things are important to you, so it can let you know when those “opportunities” arise.

Let’s say you spend most of your days sitting at a desk at work and you’ve heard about all the bad long-term health effects that lifestyle can have. So you decide that you want to get up and walk around more to improve your health. To prime your brain, you could spend a few minutes every morning (until it becomes habit) thinking about different points throughout the day that would be a good opportunity for you to get up and walk around, even if only for 30 to 60 seconds. Your commute would be a perfect opportunity to do that thinking, and it would be pretty easy to do, simply replacing a few minutes of the time you would normally spend listening to the radio. You would think about the specific things you’ll be working on that day and then visualize yourself getting up from your chair after completing certain tasks, rather than moving directly into the next thing.

You could apply this strategy to almost any situation in your life. All you would need to do is think through the different types of situations, locations, key words and phrases, or people that are relevant to the thing you want to notice. When you spend time thinking about and visualizing the different ways you may encounter them in your life, you prime your subconscious mind to flag it for your consciousness.

Obviously, the best overall strategy to combat this problem would be to prime your brain as I described here AND eliminate the time you spend with your eyes glued to a screen. I realize that, in this day and age, that’s unrealistic at best. Setting a goal to limit your screen time to some amount of time per day is probably a good and, more importantly, achievable first step. Mindfulness can also help you become more aware of your thoughts and your environment in general, which I talk about in another video if you want to check it out.

You could even do a little guerrilla warfare and use the very technology that created this problem to your advantage. Once you figure out the things you want to notice, if any of them are time-based or location-based, rather than purely situation-based, you could set up automatic reminders or location-based notifications on your phone, computer, or smartwatch to augment your subconscious mind’s abilities.

I’d love to hear about the creative ways you come up with to put this strategy to use in your life. Please let me know by leaving a comment below.