Jun 01 2011

The Baader-Meinhoff Phenomenon and Stochasticity


Spooky. Today I learnt about the Baader-Meinhoff Phenomenon from my friend Andrew, and here it is mentioned again in this WILT post.

As defined by damninteresting.com, “Baader-Meinhof is the phenomenon where one happens upon some obscure piece of information– often an unfamiliar word or name– and soon afterwards encounters the same subject again, often repeatedly. Anytime the phrase “That’s so weird, I just heard about that the other day” would be appropriate, the utterer is hip-deep in Baader-Meinhof.”

Damn interesting.

The BM Phenomenon is related to ‘synchronicty’. Have you ever been thinking about someone when the phone rings – and by chance it is that person? That’s synchronicty.

The Baader-Meinhoff Phenomenon and synchronicity happen so often that they can’t be just co-incidence, can they?

Well, in fact, yes, they can.

Our brain likes to make patterns out of things. Think about how many thoughts we have each day – 99.999% of these are not remarkable for Baader-Meinhoff or synchronicity – they pass through to the keeper. We have so much data to take in each day that the odds are that there will be some matches sometimes – and our brain will spot the pattern and switch on the light globe of recognition. Ding! “That’s weird.”

This process is amplified by the recency effect. The more recent something has happened, the greater the significance we attach to it.

This phenomenon has nothing to do with the Badder-Meinhoff gang, or Red Army Faction, who were a German terrorist group, founded by Andre Baader and Ulrike Meinhoff in 1970. Whoever named this phenomenon must have heard that gang mentioned twice, and claimed the naming rights. I wish it had been an easier word to spell.

radiolab.org have previously had a fascinating podcast on the role of randomness in our lives, Stochasticity, and our inescapable need to seek out patterns. You don’t want to miss the story of Laura Buxton, aged 10, who found a balloon with a message attached that had blown randomly from the other side of England, having been released by another little girl, also aged 10, and also called Laura Buxton! http://www.radiolab.org/2009/jun/15/

(in the next few days, you can expect to hear more about Bader-Meinhoff or radiolab or synchronicity or the recency effect or……….)

What I Learnt On 1st June in other years

One Response to “The Baader-Meinhoff Phenomenon and Stochasticity”

  1. gregorythomasrussell says:

    The following is maybe an example of the Baader-Meinhoff Phenomenon in operation. After many years of not having contact with each other, Tony Lembke emailed me today and said that I should look at a website that turns out to be his blog. The first thing I am directed to is his musings for today, which are on something he calls the Baader-Meinhoff Phenomenon. I have never heard of this before, but what I do know very well are the words "Baader-Meinhoff". It came into my life through Michael Buback. He is the son of Siegfried Buback, arguably the RAF’s most famous victim, assassinated in broad daylight as he was being driven to his work as Chief Federal Prosecutor of Germany ("Bundesanwalt") on Holy Thursday of 1977. In his other life Michael Buback is a Professor of Technical and Macromolecular Chemistry at the University of Göttingen, in which capacity he is a world expert on the kinetics of radical polymerization. Since I started postdoctoral studies with him in 1991, we have collaborated very successfully in this field, and by now have become very close friends as well as research colleagues. In 2007 Michael was visiting me in New Zealand when he received a phone call from a former member of the RAF. The gist of the phone call was "The people who are in gaol for murdering your father are not the people who did it". This completely unexpected revelation stimulated Michael to begin his own detective work, and it was relatively easy for him to establish that indeed, the two men in gaol for murdering his father could not have done it (for example, they are both right-handed, but the rifle had to be held by a left-hander). This has created a media firestorm in Germany, not least of all because it almost certainly leads to the conclusion that the people who actually did commit the murder were (and are still) being protected by the law enforcement agencies of Germany. It is all documented in Michael’s book "Der zweite Tod meines Vaters" ("The Second Death of My Father"), which maybe one day I will translate into English. During 2010 I was on sabbatical in Göttingen with Michael, which meant that I regularly experienced the media interest in this case. For me this is the real "Baader-Meinhoff Phenomenon". Similarly, for me the real "stochasticity" is that of chemical kinetics, which is my area of research. But that’s another story, one which Tony should also know a bit about, because he has a cousin-in-law who is one of the world’s leading theoreticians in this area …

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