How the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon Makes Us Think there are Coincidences

When I was in high school, I had a crush on a fellow student that happened to live in room 23 of her dormitory. It wasn’t too long before I found out indirectly that she actually had less than no interest in me and so I didn’t attempt to pursue any kind of relationship with her — I just didn’t want to get hurt. Not long after these events, however, I began noticing that the number 23 was popping up everywhere. I would notice it on a box of cereal, or a page in a library book would be dogeared to that exact page. What a coincidence, I thought, that I had recently had a crush on a girl who lived in room 23 and now the number seemed to be following me everywhere I went.

When I was attending Rutgers University, sometimes a similar thing would occur. I would learn about some obscure fact that I had never seen before that day and then suddenly in the weeks that followed, I would see that obscure piece of information in a number of different places. I would always think the same thing — it must be a tremendous coincidence that I am now reencountering this fact that I just learned about recently.

I remember when I told my brother about the odd occurrences and he quickly dispelled my mystical thinking. Even he knew then that there is no such thing as coincidence. What I was experiencing was not a coincidence at all but something far more simple. It was something that is referred to as the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon, and the simplest explanation is like this — you think that it is so interesting that you are re-encountering the same obscure fact after only recently learning about it, but it is not at all coincidence or luck or anything of the nature.

When you learn about the obscure fact, or even have something in mind (such as my crush on the schoolmate leading to me thinking about the number 23) that very thing sticks out more to you because you have it in mind. When you see the obscure fact after learning about it, you are amazed to see it there, but the truth is that it would have been there whether you learned about it or not. You are overlooking countless obscure pieces of information every day that are completely meaningless to you because there are so many of them out there that they merge together into a beautiful map of information. The human mind is incapable of taking in all of that information at once so when you are particularly focused on one thing, that one thing stands out to you and you are marveled by seeing it again.

The next time you learn some obscure piece of information and then see it later on in the day, remember that it is not at all a coincidence — just the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon in effect!

18 comments