Sunday, June 28, 2015

The Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon

One of the side effects of being a writer (or is it a cause?) is a fascination with words. A few years ago, I wrote about my discovery that there is actually a name-- the Diderot Effect--for a phenomenon I'd observed but never knew had a label. I felt a similar sense of ah-ha elation when I stumbled upon what is known as the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon.

The Baader-Meinhof Group was the original name of the Red Army Faction, a West German far-left militant group responsible for a number of terrorist acts in the 1970s especially. (Fun fact: in my previous life as an academic, I once edited a friend's master's thesis on post-World War II German far left groups.) But they're not very well known these days, which is how their name came to be attached to a phenomenon also known (less colorfully) as "frequency illusion."

So what is it? Basically, it's a term used for the phenomenon in which something--a person, an idea, a word, whatever--that you'd never heard about suddenly seems to be everywhere, appearing again and again. Psychologists tell us it's the result of what they call "selective attention" (when you learn about a new thing, you start watching for it) and "confirmation bias" (so that each new exposure reinforces the impression that the new found thing is suddenly everywhere).

So how did this phenomenon end up with the name "Baader-Meinhof phenomenon"? Evidently back in the 90s, some online commenter at the St. Paul Pioneer Press came up with the label after hearing about the B-M Gang twice in one day. From there it spread.

And now we can all watch to see how many times the term suddenly appears in our lives.


Susan J. said...

I was very interested to read about the 'Diderot Affect'. It takes me back to my studies with The Open University. I did a mixed arts discipline course called 'The Enlightenment' about the 18th century and which included a study of the Encyclopedie, to which Diderot contributed. It was a wonderful course and it led me to continue with single subject philosophy for the next three years.
Did you see Sir Kenneth Clarke's 1969 BBC series 'Civilisation' in which he makes a good arguement for the civilised Salons, of which Diderot was a frequent contributor and in which women held a prominent role, as oppose to the excesses of the 1789 revolution? Napoleon, a product of the revolution, was afraid of clever women. Wellington, however, is seen as the typical aristocrat, yet loved to surround himself with intelligent women who frequently challenged him. Yet Napoleon is seen as the great leader of meritocracy! How often these past revolutions have been for men only to gain power. You only have to think of poor Mary Wollstonecraft and how she was forced to give up her ideals.

cs harris said...

Susan, I have never seen that episode; sounds interesting. Since Napoleon's brother plays a part in WHEN FALCONS FALL, I recently read several books about the Bonaparte family, and his mother was a very intelligent, powerful woman. (The whole family was totally nuts). Napoleon famously told Madame de Condorcet that women were only good for procreation and recreation; I suspect he had mommy issues!

Julie said...

A group of my friends call this Snagglepuss. For much the same reasons as the commentator you mention came up with "the Baader-Meinhoff Phenomenon". And it's easier and more fun to say.

Jan Power said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jan Power said...

This happens to me all the time, and coincidentally it happened just now with your post. I haven't thought of this group in years. Then we met Mandy Potemkin at Heathrow and he and his wife we travelling to Berlin and will stay there filming the next season of Homeland through mid-November. I thought, gee, I wonder if the script will have the Baader-Meinhof Gang becoming more active aligning with even worse terrorists and Claire and Saul are drawn out of the Middle East to deal with them. Now here you are mentioning it again and it is has a double whammy of being the name you call this phenomenon!

Anonymous said...

Oooh, a bit spooky this B-M Phenomenon! Yesterday I was talking to friends about visiting the Garden Museum at Lambeth Palace and posted on Facebook the picture of Gertrude Jekyll's desk at the Garden museum. Now waiting for a third mention. I reckon you need at least 3 mentions to turn a coincidence into a 'phenomenon'! I have been to the Lambeth Palace Gardens open day, and the tour of LP, but haven't been specifically to the Garden Museum yet. It is on the list of things to do. I am an Aussie living in London (husband transferred here with work) and as a history buff, I'm loving it. And being here really brings your St Cyr books alive Candy, gives them such a richer dimension. Yes, I'm loving it. Cheers, Rhonda

Susan J. said...

I laughed about the 'mommy issues', it seems very likely! What a thoroughly unpleasant man he sounds.
When we were moving to our village of Willoughby, the name kept cropping up everywhere starting with a mention of a Lady Willoughby in the BBC dramatisation of Persuasion and from then on all the time! We saw it as a favourable sign but it was probably just coincidence.

Charles Gramlich said...

I had heard of this name before but had forgotten it. Now I wonder if I'll be seeing it everywhere. :)

cs harris said...

Julie, definitely easier!

Jan, that's funny!

Rhonda, let me know if you get the third strike. I'd love to tour Lambeth Palace! How lucky you were. Be sure to have tea and cakes when you get to the Garden Museum; they're wonderful, and their garden in the old churchyard is divine.

Susan, they were all certifiably crackers. When I moved back to the States, I strongly considered moving to Monterey in California; instead I bought a house on Monterey Avenue. Definitely a sign.

Charles, I haven't seen it yet!

Susan J. said...

The Monteray connection was definitely spooky!
Speaking of Civilisation, the BBC series, I recently purchased the DVD, the BBC have put many of the good older historical documentaries on DVD now. I also have recently got many of Michael Wood's, such as In Search of the Dark Ages, from the early 80's, In Search of Alexander, a history of India done in the 90's and the brilliant series he did on Shakespeare in 2003, with lots about Shakespeare's London. They are all quite a reasonable price now. Have you seen any of his programmes? They used to call him 'the thinking woman's crumpet!'He certainly used to look pretty good in tight jeans! Apart from that, he did brilliant programmes (still does and he still has that little boy cheeky face, even at sixty something!)

Susan J. said...

I meant that to read as In Search of Alexander and also a series on India (two separate programmes).

Kerry Kresse said...

I love Michael Wood. He can be my crumpet any day!

paz said...

Great to have you back! Love the cover of Falcons, though am in the Team Daniel (as in Day-Lewis) when it comes to Sebastian look alikes. Hope it all works out with the Penguin restructuring...

About your B-M phenomenon: the New Yorker just ran this piece, and I thought I would alert you to it. On the one hand, it has to do with the circulation of words; on the other, it is about an awesome word, and perhaps Sebastian might be inclined to use it (though it might be anachronistic for him...) The word is parbunkells, and the link is this

cs harris said...

Susan, I'll have to look for them. Although I never seem to find the time to watch anything....

Kerry, he is good.

Paz, that article is hilarious--although I'm still having a hard time grasping the rope and nooses image. Why they ever needed a word for that is beyond me. Reminds me of carbuncle.

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