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The ‘Baader-Meinhof phenomenon’ is a secret weapon for compliance training

The Baader-Meinhof phenomenon? Although the name might not be familiar, everyone knows what it is.

It’s when you learn about something new, then notice it everywhere. You say to yourself, how come I didn’t notice this before because it’s all over the place?

Maybe you’re thinking about buying a new car of a particular make, model, and color. Suddenly, everywhere you go, you see that car exactly. The same can happen with shoes, sunglasses, hats, and so on. Ladies report frequent sightings of newly noticed colors of lipstick and fingernail polish. It happens too with less tangible things — new words, for example, that pop up again and again.

Weird, right?

This one happened to me recently. I slogged through a 699-page SEC filing and thought about the burden that falls on the corporate world every 90 days.

Then I began to notice “90 days” everywhere. I saw a payment term with a 90-day grace period. A new insurance policy came with a 90-day wait for coverage. Bank deposits locked up longer than 90 days had to be separated from ready cash. I read about an HR survey that found a third of new employees leave within 90 days; that’s why most probation periods are 90 days. I heard someone say it takes 90 days to break a bad habit and form a new good one. I realized for the first time the 90 Day Fiancé TV show is named for the 90-day marriage deadline in K-1 visas.

Why hadn’t I noticed the 90-day thing before? It’s everywhere.

Another name for the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon is “frequency illusion.” There are lots of theories about why it happens, and how.

Spiritualists think God or “the universe” is at work, bringing something essential and profound into our consciousness. That explanation works OK for newly noticed birdsongs, for example, or birch trees, or the sweet smell from a wildflower. But when you notice repeating things like tattoos, chemical additives in foods, shoelace designs, and Apple Watch bands, the spiritual explanation doesn’t work as well.

The consensus explanation for frequency illusion is more practical. Pacific Standard magazine (now gone) said the mind plays a trick on you through a two-step process. The first step is when you notice a new thing. Your mind then “unconsciously keep[s] an eye out for it, and as a result find[s] it surprisingly often.”

The second step is called “confirmation bias, [which] reassures you that each sighting is further proof of your impression that the thing has gained overnight omnipresence.”

In other words, nothing has changed in the world except your perceptions.

According to Pacific Standard, the term “Baader-Meinhof phenomenon” was coined in 1994 by a commenter on the St. Paul Pioneer Press’ online discussion board. The commenter had just learned about the German Baader-Meinhof terrorist group that had been around since 1970, then heard the name twice more in 24 hours.

Whatever the origin of the name, the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon is real. And it somehow plays a role in how we learn new things and remember them.

The application to any kind of training, including compliance training, is clear. If trainers can induce frequency illusion about something important — for example, that anonymous companies and offshore bank accounts are red flags — the training will reverberate long after any classroom sessions end.

I once heard a compliance trainer say, “Repetition is key, but it can’t be boring.” So, maybe the way to drive home a crucial compliance point is to explain it, then tell the trainees about the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon. In other words, link the substantive lesson with another lesson about how the mind works. That may be an indirect way to create the needed repetition.

“Now that you know about the compliance dangers of anonymous companies and offshore bank accounts, I’ll bet you’ll see them everywhere in your due diligence.”

My guess: That’s exactly what will happen. Again and again.

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  1. Sounds like deja vu all over again.

    Good article.

  2. Interesting. Thank you!

  3. Now we’ll all be seeing this phenomenon everywhere we look!

  4. Interesting point about the psychology of awareness. Not sure however about the link to a murderous terrorist group, however at least grabbed my attention and got me to read the article.

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