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Nobody calls "deja vu" the Spartacist League Phenomenon
April 24, 2014 10:36 AM   Subscribe

What's the etymology of the "Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon"?

As someone who is fascinated with the history of left-wing political movements, I've known about the Baader-Meinhof group for years.

I've also encountered the idea of the "Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon" as a name for that thing that happens where you hear about something for the first time, and then suddenly you start noticing it everywhere.

But why is it called that? The "Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon" wikipedia page (which is usually good for this sort of question) has been deleted. None of the web resources on the Phenomenon talk about the name at all. It's as if they think Baader and Meinhof were scientists who analyzed this tendency in the brain, or something?

Why a mention of a revolutionary/terrorist group in the name? Why not any of a million other bits of trivia that could be an example of our tendency to notice patterns like this?
posted by Sara C. to Writing & Language (14 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
 
When I googled Baader-Meinhof, the fifth link explained the etymology:
The considerably catchier sobriquet Baader-Meinhof phenomenon was invented in 1994 by a commenter on the St. Paul Pioneer Press’ online discussion board, who came up with it after hearing the name of the ultra-left-wing German terrorist group twice in 24 hours. The phrase became a meme on the newspaper’s boards, where it still pops up regularly, and has since spread to the wider Internet.
So, saying _none_ of the web resources mention the source is a little off, huh? :)
posted by mikeh at 10:40 AM on April 24 [2 favorites]


From here:
The considerably catchier sobriquet Baader-Meinhof phenomenon was invented in 1994 by a commenter on the St. Paul Pioneer Press’ online discussion board, who came up with it after hearing the name of the ultra-left-wing German terrorist group twice in 24 hours.
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 10:40 AM on April 24


I didn't google "Baader-Meinhof" thinking that would lead me to the group itself, not a "phenomenon" so obscure Wikipedia has deemed it unworthy of an article. I googled "Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon" and mostly got results from Reddit.
posted by Sara C. at 10:47 AM on April 24


Damn Interesting disagrees, but whatever:
How the phenomenon came to be known as "Baader-Meinhof" is uncertain. It seems likely that some individual learned of the existence of the historic German urban guerrilla group which went by that name, and then heard the name again soon afterwards. This plucky wordsmith may then have named the phenomenon after the very subject which triggered it. But it is certainly a mouthful; a shorter name might have more hope of penetrating the lexicon.
posted by caek at 10:49 AM on April 24


Why not any of a million other bits of trivia that could be an example of our tendency to notice patterns like this?

Actually, I've never heard "Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon" before! In my circles, this is known as "diegogarcity" (previously on AskMe here).
posted by karbonokapi at 10:49 AM on April 24 [1 favorite]


I always called it "The Yellow VW Syndrome", after how you never used to see a yellow VW, until you started seeing them everywhere. But I think my brother made that up?
posted by latkes at 10:51 AM on April 24


I don't believe usage of this term is as widespread as you may believe. Started by an MSP newscaster in 1994? Ten years earlier, a great movie called Repo Man introduced the term Plate Of Shrimp which is IMO much more commonly used to describe the same phenomenon.
posted by Rash at 10:51 AM on April 24 [2 favorites]


But maybe you yourself are experiencing Baader-Meinhof syndrome, as you heard someone say it and now you think everyone is saying it?
posted by latkes at 10:52 AM on April 24 [2 favorites]


When I google Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon that psmag link is the second result? It's possible Google is catering results from often-clicked sites that are obscuring the good results.

For what it's worth, the facebook page referencing the phenomenon has this link to what is presumably a mirror of the deleted wikipedia article.
posted by mikeh at 11:00 AM on April 24


that thing that happens where you hear about something for the first time, and then suddenly you start noticing it everywhere

FWIW, outside of Internet-geek circles this is known as the recency effect (or recency illusion, or recency bias). That might be a useful search term, since the "Baader-Meinhof" name for the phenomenon is pretty much an online autodidact thing.
posted by RogerB at 11:02 AM on April 24 [2 favorites]


I called it the GTA Effect, after the weird bug/flaw in GTA where the car you were driving was much more likely to be the model you saw everyone driving around in.
posted by odinsdream at 11:22 AM on April 24


From this Bulletin Board column in the Jan 18, 2013 St. Paul Pioneer Press:
Here's what you need to know about the origin of the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon, from the Bulletin Board of Oct. 16, 1994: "Just a coincidence? Here's Gigetto on Lincoln:

" 'Many years ago, I identified a phenomenon so startling and so broad in its application that it encompasses the current wonder surrounding the number 23, as well as many other forms of eerie coincidence.

" 'I have dubbed it The Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon -- named after the notorious West German gang of terrorists. The phenomenon goes like this: The first time you learn a new word, phrase or idea, you will see that word, phrase or idea again in print within 24 hours. (This does not apply to topical things -- just obscure words, etc.)

" 'As you might guess, the phenomenon is named after an incident in which I was talking to a friend about the Baader-Meinhof gang (and this was many years after they were in the news). The next day, my friend phoned me and referred me to an article in that day's newspaper in which the Baader-Meinhof gang was mentioned. Quel surpris! [Bulletin Board notes: You may recall that on two occasions, The Wordsmith of St. Paul reported seeing a word a second time within a day after first encountering it and looking it up -- but he didn't give the phenomenon a cute name.]

" 'Within my circle of friends, the expression "Baader-Meinhof" is now well known -- as in: "I had the greatest Baader-Meinhof yesterday." It instantly communicates this complex and puzzling experience of seeing something in print so soon after learning about it.

" 'There are many corollaries to the B-M Phenomenon, only one of which I will alert you to now. I call it The Comics Page Corollary: No matter what newspaper you read (provided it has a comics page), four or five times a year, two comics will appear on the same day with the same punch line. Again, to qualify, it cannot be topical; raking leaves, back-to-school antics, Halloween -- these references are to be expected. But every once in a while, completely out of the blue, two comics share the same joke. For example: On the same day, "Mother Goose & Grimm" and "Garfield" dealt with dogs drinking out of toilets.

" 'You are welcome to start using Baader-Meinhof to explain the inexplicable. I do.' "
posted by mhum at 2:30 PM on April 24


I've also encountered the idea of the "Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon" as a name for that thing that happens where you hear about something for the first time, and then suddenly you start noticing it everywhere.

My limited understanding of this part of your question is that it is a consequence of the brain's Reticular Activating System. Basically, it filters out what you don't need (or don't think you need) so you can better focus your attention on what does matter. An example would be a new mother who sleeps through all manner of noises, but when the baby makes a peep she wakes up.

Similarly, so the theory goes, when you buy a new car, suddenly you notice all the cars on the road that are like yours, because that make and model now has a relevance to you that it didn't before.

It's the basis for a lot of pop psychology, The Secret being one. Supposedly, if you consistently and consciously focus on your goals, your RAS begins to stop filtering out environmental stimulus that might be relevant to achieving your goals that you wouldn't have noticed otherwise.
posted by Short Attention Sp at 2:59 PM on April 24


There was a point when Wikipedia was being used tendentiously in order to promote certain views or certain framings of things. I am pretty certain that while at some level the creators of the "Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon" article were sincere in simply wanting to give this common experience a popular name, they were also trying to promote an in-joke to which they were privy. It's not a crime, but under stricter Wikipedia sourcing rules, the article really needed to go or get a redirection to a more scholarly article on the topic. (Well, it does, but without explaining what you asked about. Looks like a link to the Pacific Standard article was added just yesterday.)

I think the actual "why" has been sufficiently answered, but to expound on that a bit, in the olden days of yore on yon Internets, there was less awareness that one person's in-joke could be another person's reminder of their country's years of terror.
posted by dhartung at 1:43 PM on April 25


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