Frequency Illusion: A Cognitive Bias That Lurks Everywhere and Follows You Around

Year of production: 2023

We like to think of ourselves as rational beings who, when presented with enough information and time for contemplation, can make good choices and judgements. Well, ha-ha, the joke’s on us, because we are not. In this series of short articles about our beautiful and flawed brains – more specifically about cognitive biases – we will look at five common cognitive biases that directly connect to media and information literacies (MILs). The foundation of MILs is knowing oneself and others, and what better time to remind ourselves of our biases than at the brink of elections! So hopefully next time we find ourselves in the middle of a heated online debate about political views or simply as targets of political campaigns, we will know better than to let our brains hijack our judgement through these cognitive shifts.

Sometimes, it’s as if something starts ‘following’ you everywhere. You constantly hear the same song, see red cars everywhere, notice others using a particular term incorrectly in their speech, and get followed by ads with similar content online. In this article, we will look at a cognitive bias called the frequency illusion that gives people the impression that something is happening more often than is actually the case, making a phenomenon appear more widespread than it truly is.

Terrorists and furry creatures

This cognitive bias is also called the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon and dates back to 1994 when a user of an online forum described to the web community how they learned about the existence of the German terrorist group Baader-Meinhof and then, immediately afterwards, started seeing the name everywhere. Many others in the forum shared similar experiences, and from there, the knowledge and the name made their way into the academic sphere.

Frequency illusion can be connected to a cuter metaphor – in the field of economics and marketing, we talk about the ‘meerkat effect’. Meerkats behave like vigilant guards. Pop! The head goes up, scanning the surroundings, noticing everything, observing with great attention. Such a tendency towards hypersensitivity, a pattern of perception biased by our recent awareness, makes us notice things frequently, especially those we’ve recently become aware of or concepts that have been actively used, etc. For example, you will certainly notice the meerkat effect operating here and there within a few days. Or see images of meerkats. Or read a book chapter where a pet meerkat makes an appearance.

The Big Other is watching me!

It is believed that the ‘mechanics’ of the frequency illusion are built on selective attention. We can actually focus on very few stimuli, and even fewer consistently over a longer period. Also, our brains are easy prey to confirmation bias, meaning we look for evidence that supports our existing beliefs or hypotheses. If, for example, you believe that you are being followed online by… uh… ferns? horses? weight loss? weightlifting? or related ads and texts, then part of this can be attributed to extreme vigilance on that topic, which triggers the frequency illusion. The frequently appearing ‘object’ must usually be somehow noteworthy or important to the individual, receiving special focus. Think also of the saying, ‘When you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail.’ For instance, if I’ve just become aware of a fascinating sociological theory, I’ll interpret every damn social phenomenon through that framework. It fits everywhere!

I hear you protesting: ‘No, Maria! My phone is definitely listening to me! It’s been on the news and everything!’ Has it, though? Social media platforms are profiling us, but not necessarily by listening in – they compile thousands of data points and predict what could interest people ‘like you’, what you and your personal social network do and click and engage with. So, when you talk to your friend about Borat-inspired swimwear and the next morning a hairy neon-stringed moustache-man is following you in the digital ads, it might be triggered by location tracking. Your phones hung out near each other last evening? OK, you must be connected! Perhaps the triggers were the friend’s online searches, or how they watched those twelve clips of Borat, combined with your habit of ordering random quirky stuff on a whim. But indeed, there is reason to be suspicious – although the platforms and device-providers are saying that they do not listen in, they have also previously denied microtargeting and meddling in politics. And very often it is simply the frequency illusion in action.

Frequency illusion in action

Back to the bias in the context of media competence: one very common way in which the susceptibility to this specific illusion is used against us is advertising. Why are advertisements bombarded at us everywhere? To make you aware of the brand, notice it more, to have it readily accessible in your brain. Get that Prime energy drink, everybody is drinking it these days! (No, actually, you probably should think twice about it).

Why am I talking about this here? Media and information literacies are essential skills and knowledge that individuals need to effectively navigate and critically engage with the vast amount of information and media they encounter in today’s digital age. Knowledge about digital environments, the architecture of platforms, social norms, etc., is increasingly important. But the foundation of media and information literacy is self-awareness and the ability to analyse others, too – understanding how our brains and perceptions work.


Picture of Maria Murumaa-Mengel
Maria Murumaa-Mengel, PhD

Maria Murumaa-Mengel (PhD in Media and Communication) is currently working as an Associate Professor of Media Studies at the Institute of Social Studies, University of Tartu, and as a member of the Baltic Engagement Centre for Combating Information Disorders. She is involved in research primarily focusing on young people’s use (and non-use, ‘going off the grid’) of social media, different literacies (e.g. digital, MIL, social media, porn), and various online risks (e.g. gendered online hate, online shaming, online child sexual abuse and grooming). Maria Murumaa-Mengel’s main strengths lie in teaching and supervising – she is the recipient of the 2020 Estonian National Award for the Teacher of the Year and has supervised several award-winning theses. In regard to digital media literacies, she is a firm believer in the ‘know thyself’ ground rule – it all starts with knowing how we as people process information in the increasingly mediatised and datafied world.