Imagine: you’re out getting coffee with a friend, and you admire the watch she’s wearing. It’s like nothing you’ve ever seen before.
“Thanks,” she says breezily, tells you the name of the brand, and takes a bite of her muffin.
Later that day on the train home from work, you feel a jolt of recognition when you spot one on the wrist of the lady standing next to you. How funny, you think, and turn back to your phone, where—as if on cue—an ad for the brand shows up in your newsfeed.
By the end of the week, every third person you see is wearing this watch. Good grief, even your mom owns one. How had you never noticed before? Did everyone buy one on the same day?
But the truth is, the universe isn’t turning on its head, you’re not going crazy, and you haven’t been initiated into (or excluded from) a secret club. (I will, however, leave open the possibility that you’re seeing highly targeted ads.) What’s really going on is a specific cognitive bias—one that convinces us that something we’ve just learned or seen is surfacing uncannily often. It’s called the frequency illusion.
The frequency illusion, also known as the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon, is “the result of two well-known psychological processes,” wrote Stanford University professor Arnold Zwicky in 2006: “selective attention (noticing things that are salient to us, disregarding the rest) and confirmation bias (looking for things that support our hypotheses, disregarding potential counterevidence).” In other words, your brain tends to look out for what you’ve recently learned—selective attention—and then convinces you that the reason you’re seeing it so much is because it’s suddenly everywhere, rather than it simply coming to your attention more often—confirmation bias.
But more than being an interesting little tidbit of information, the concept of the frequency illusion can help us cultivate new habits and be more intentional in our day-to-day lives.
What’s in a name?
Names, particularly the act of naming something, matter.
Dr. Dan Siegel, UCLA professor of psychiatry, offers simple advice for helping young children experiencing high emotions: “Name it to tame it.” He explains that naming an emotion—say, fear—brings it from what he calls the “downstairs brain” (the subcortical) to the “upstairs brain” (the cortex), where it can be dealt with more effectively.
Similarly, names shape our understanding of something. Take colors, for instance. Cultures vary in how many words they use to describe color—and, according to some studies, this variety of words affects individuals’ perception of different shades.
These examples corroborate what we learned from our aforementioned frequency illusion: to vary Siegel’s maxim slightly, “Name it to notice it.” Just as bringing the name of a thorny emotion “upstairs” can help a child manage his response, or how having multiple dedicated words for shades of blue can aid an individual in perceiving them, naming a pattern of thought or behavior—a habit—gives us a heightened awareness of it. “I struggle with impostor syndrome” can illuminate a pattern of irrationally negative thinking. “I shop online when I’m bored” may make you think twice before you click “place order.”
It may even help to make up a name for a habit that you’re struggling to adapt or change. Gretchen Rubin, habits and happiness guru, has one of her own: “procrasticlearing,” for when you take on non-urgent tasks (like doing the dishes or clearing out your inbox) in the face of a more difficult task. That urgent desire to update your LinkedIn profile when you have a work deadline looming may itself be indicative of a larger pattern—if only you had a name to help you notice the pattern of behavior.
What about unknown unknowns?
There is one problem, however.
While some habits of ours—be they patterns of thinking or a tendency not to make the bed—are easy enough to observe and name, other habits or external factors might be more subtle: the cyclic nature of our energy levels, for example, or the connection between cultivating contentment and our financial health. How do we stumble upon the knowledge that will help us gain self-awareness and be more intentional?
There’s no one podcast, book, or even discipline that can give us all the tools we need to train our eyes on what affects our habits (though I do recommend anything by Gretchen Rubin). But adopting a posture of curiosity can help us learn about what affects our day-to-day lives, whether by more reading, more meaningful conversations with other people, or listening to the latest TED talk. Paying attention begets further paying attention.
So good luck in your efforts to become more mindful of your habits. And let me know if you start seeing references to the frequency illusion in every article you read.
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